‘Everyone is getting locked up’: As workers grow disgruntled, China strikes at labor activists

Source: Washington Post    Author: Gerry Shih

BEIJING — When the young labor activist and blogger Chen Weixiang helped street cleaners in southern China campaign for better wages by organizing demonstrations and publicizing their case online in 2014, he succeeded in winning them improved conditions.

When he tried again this month, acting for a different set of laborers, he did not.

Chinese authorities seized the prominent activist last week and punished him with a jail stint of at least two weeks for “provoking quarrels and stirring troubles,” according to a person with direct knowledge of his case who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of official reprisal.

The case of the U.S.-educated Chen, who ran a microblog called “Heart Sanitation,” illustrates how a brand of nonviolent labor activism that was once tolerated by Chinese authorities is now off-limits in a country facing stiff economic head winds and deepening political insecurity.

“What he was doing would be seen as normal in China, even in the early years of the Xi Jinping administration,” said Elaine Hui, a labor scholar at Pennsylvania State University who studied alongside Chen when he obtained a master’s degree there in 2016. “Now, there is zero tolerance for dissent.”

Chen’s penalty was relatively light by China’s standards. But he is probably the 140th worker, activist or student to be arrested or detained in the past 18 months, according to data kept by the China Labor Crackdown Concern Group, a coalition of Chinese and foreign activists and academics.

The labor crackdown amounts to one of the largest campaigns to suppress civil society groups in China under Xi, the Chinese leader who has spoken this year about the risks facing the ruling Communist Party as it navigates rising unemployment and the most difficult economic conditions in decades.

In meetings of senior officials in January, Xi stressed the need for a “high degree of vigilance” against political and economic challenges, while a key ally, Wang Huning, told cadres of the need to “defuse major risks” that could undermine the party’s rule.

In the past year, authorities have severely punished students from elite universities for trying to organize electronics workers. They have also sentenced several nonprofit workers and bloggers for advocating for ailing construction workers. China’s government has not commented on the labor crackdown, and police in Guangzhou declined to answer questions about Chen.

Ground zero both for activists and the government response has been southern Guangdong province, which has been rocked by strikes, factory relocations and closures as China’s exports dip.

For years when the economy was booming, strikes and labor disputes were often overlooked as part of China’s maturation process, said Li Qiang, founder of China Labor Watch, a nonprofit based in New York.

Today, Li said, the government sees “labor friction like a furnace — it can ignite at any time.”

Meanwhile, a larger national conversation about social inequality and economic uncertainty has roiled Chinese society.

From January through the summer, professional soccer players who were not getting paid launched a public protest and likened their plight to that of migrant construction workers.

This month, the urban middle class turned against Huawei after former employees said they were wrongfully imprisoned after challenging the technology giant for compensation they said they were owed.

The stories struck a nerve. One popular Chinese blogger compared the firm to an “evil elephant” that used its clout to squash ordinary worker “ants.” Countless other posters on Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter, likened Huawei’s top executives to privileged royalty while employees toiled long hours and without protections. Huawei has accused the employees of extortion and denied wrongdoing.

Labor advocates say pressures on the working class in China’s south — and the prospect of mass, mobilized protesters — worry authorities most.

Sanitation workers and street cleaners — the type of workers Chen sought to help — have held 15 strikes this year, according to Geoff Crothall of China Labor Bulletin, a Hong Kong nonprofit. That’s up from 11 the previous year.

“There’s such an uptick, a critical load, in workers determined to defend their rights” compared with previous years, Crothall said. “That’s why the government sees it as such a sensitive issue.”

Chen’s arrest this month, his supporters say, would have been difficult to imagine in 2011, when he first became involved in the sanitation workers’ cause.

Still an undergraduate medical student at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, Chen observed campus cleaners holding protests to demand higher pay. He began interviewing street cleaners to weave together biographical essays that illustrated their poor working conditions and meager compensation — the kind of writing that would come to define his activism.

He abandoned his medical career and shifted into labor activism full time by 2014, when he helped sanitation workers hold repeated strikes and mass demonstrations in southern China that resulted in the effective doubling of their minimum pay to $360 a month, said Yu Wucang, a sanitation worker who campaigned alongside Chen.

The most serious repercussion Chen faced then was that his university threatened to fail him. So he continued studies at Penn State — where he helped organize a graduate-student union — and later worked as an intern at the University of California at Berkeley.

He returned to China and became known for running the Heart Sanitation blog that solicited essays from street cleaners.

In recent months, Yu, the sanitation worker, said he discussed with Chen about posting less on social media as he saw other activists disappear one by one. Chen confessed that security officials were often summoning him for talks.

“I told him, don’t be too forward, don’t be too direct,” Yu said. “Maybe we have already done quite a lot for the cause.”

Chen went ahead last week and posted on his website the demands from 130 street cleaners for about $280,000 in wages they said they were owed.

Three days later, he was driven from his home in a minivan by roughly 10 security officials, his supporters said.

“In southern China, everyone is getting locked up,” Yu said. 

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