Student activists who were supporting workers fighting for union rights have gone missing in southern China after the police raided the apartment where they were staying, which was seen in a video posted by a Hong Kong non-profit organisation on Twitter.
According to labour activists that were in communication with the group, the raid took place at 5am on Friday 24 August in Huizhou, in Guangdong province. Activists said they could not contact the detained, and did not know their location.
The group of 50 students and five workers is part of a growing labour rights coalition in China’s manufacturing region. In interviews with Reuters a day before the raid, 15 activists involved in the protests regarding Jasic workers’ rights described that they were being forced to disengage from the workers’ cause.
For example, they gave details of authorities flying the young activists’ parents to Guangdong, then stationing them in hotels to undergo “training sessions” about how to raise their children.
The sessions entailed lecturing parents on what text messages to send the students. Authorities also arranged for parents to show up at places where their children were, including the apartment, and shopping areas where protests were staged.
According to Reuters, the Ministry of Education issued a notice days before the raid to universities across China, telling institutions to stop students from travelling to Guangdong to participate in the protests.
Labour activists reported that an unconfirmed number of students were released from detention since the raid. They were sent home separately without their telephones, and kept under surveillance.
Zhang Shengye, a graduate of Peking University who was escorted back to his hometown, said in a statement posted on the Jasic website that authorities also assailed and seized labour supporters from other provinces last Friday.
He added that the students’ telephones, computers, hard drives, and other electronic gadgets were in the possession of police.
“My sorrow will not lower my spirits, my anger will not cause me to lose reason, being under surveillance will not intimidate me into surrendering,” Zhang wrote.
Any suspicions that a grass-roots union might have ties with an external party would be met with a crackdown
– Chris Chan King-chi
According to a “strike map” collated by the China Labour Bulletin, more than 1,860 strikes or workers’ protests have been recorded over the past 12 months. Jasic was the only action associated with forming a union.
All unions in China must register with the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, a government-affiliated group. Independent labour organising groups and trade unions are banned in the country.
Chris Chan King-chi, a labour rights expert at Hong Kong’s City University, said there had been a massive crackdown on labour rights since 2015.
Chan commented to South China Morning Post (SCMP): “Any suspicions that a grass-roots union might have ties with an external party would be met with a crackdown.
“This has not changed since 2010 when the Pearl River Delta car factories experienced a chain of industrial actions that went nationwide.”
Prior to the raid, Chan said that the students’ left-wing views and their ability to mobilise support put authorities in a difficult position. If they responded with severe punishments, they risked garnering more support and public sympathy for the protesters.
The labour movement began in May, when workers at Shenzhen Jasic Technology, a privately-owned manufacturer of industrial welding equipment, attempted to unionise due to low pay, poor working conditions, and abusive management practices.
After the local Pingshan district trade union federation refused to help, workers and their supporters staged protests at the Jasic factory in July, following the dismissal of employees who had attempted to form an independent trade union.
Seven worker representatives were allegedly sacked, beaten and detained. 29 supporters were arrested, including family members, colleagues and a student. Amnesty International reported that 30 people had been arrested by the end of July.
Following the incident, the workers gained public support. Shen Mengyu, a well-known student activist, demanded for all of the detainees to be released, and pressured on the local trade union to intervene. She was apprehended on 11 August.
I see hope in the future, that we can become a part of a bigger process of decision making with a union
– A 27-year-old worker from Hunan
China’s political groups expressed their support for the students by joining a rally held on 6 August in Shenzhen. 40 of the 80 protestors were Communist Party members and retired cadres, who are part of the country’s leading Maoist internet forum, Utopia.
During the hour-long protest, students, workers and retirees formed a human chain and chanted slogans, demanding the unconditional release of Jasic workers from police custody.
Workers described how they were physically abused while in detention, and Utopia demonstrators were seen holding posters of China’s former chairman Mao Zedong.
Song Ying, a 67-year-old Maoist from Zhengzhou, told SCMP: “This is a great awakening moment of workers. They might be small in number but they do not realise what they have achieved. This is a turning point for Chinese workers’ resistance.”
Also speaking to SCMP, Shen Mengyu, a Sun Yat-sen University postgraduate who worked in a factory for three years, said: “We are prepared for what’s to come. There is nothing wrong as long as we operate within the law, our demands are legitimate.”
The protests have spread to China’s capital, Beijing, where a group of 20 students, activists and two worker representatives from Jasic submitted petition letters at the headquarters of the All-China Federations of Trade Unions and the All-China Women’s Federation days before the raid.
A 27-year-old worker from central China’s Hunan province who was recently released by Shenzhen police stated that he was overwhelmed by the support shown to the workers.
“If not for this, I would probably never have come across a Tsinghua or Peking University student in my life,” he said to SCMP.
“I see hope in the future, that we can become a part of a bigger process of decision making with a union.”