[Marxism] ‘Everyone is getting locked up’: As workers grow disgruntled, China strikes at labor activists
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Wed Dec 25 09:58:13 MST 2019
Washington Post, Dec. 25, 2019
‘Everyone is getting locked up’: As workers grow disgruntled, China
strikes at labor activists
By 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 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
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
"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
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
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.
Buffeted by trade war and Hong Kong protests, China’s Xi Jinping seeks
to project stability
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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