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China’s Labor Activists ‘Hold Fast to Freedom’

National Crackdown Engulfs Workers’ Rights Advocates in Shenzhen

Cartoon drawn by Wei Zhili’s wife, Zheng Churan, and the couples’ friends. © Zheng Churan

“The whole world is waiting for you to come back. ‘Hold fast to freedom in the wind and rain,’” wrote Zheng Churan in a postcard to her husband, Wei Zhili, a labor activist detained in March by authorities in the city of Shenzhen, southeast China.  

“Hold fast to freedom in the wind and rain” are lyrics from “Glorious Days,” a rock song by the Hong Kong band Beyond that has become an anthem of sorts for political protests in the region. The phrase accurately describes the state of human rights activism in China today.

In addition to Wei, 30, an editor of the workers’ rights news website New Generation, Shenzhen police have also detained two other website editors, Yang Zhengjun, 33, and Ke Chengbing, 29, in January and March respectively. The trio have for years advocated for migrant workers who contracted silicosis, a deadly occupational lung disease caused by inhaling dust that contains silica, which is produced when rock and masonry are cut or drilled.

Millions of workers in China developed silicosis after working in coal mines or construction sites with little or no protection. Many of them did not have formal contracts with their employers, making it nearly impossible for them to get meaningful compensation. Those who petitioned the government for compensation are routinely harassed or detained. Ke, Wei, and Yang helped raise public awareness of the plight of silicosis victims, gave them advice on relevant laws, and joined their protests.

After hearing the news that Wei was detained, more than a hundred silicosis-stricken workers in Hunan province who the three had previously helped decided to go to Shenzhen to show support, but police intercepted them at their departure train station.

These detentions are just the most recent in the government’s nationwide crackdown on labor activism. Over 40 workers and student activists connected to the Jasic Technology case – in which student activists supported workers in Shenzhen to form a union – remain in detention. In January, police in three cities across southern China detained five additional labor activists protesting over separate issues.

The Chinese Communist Party views the alliance between disaffected workers, activists, and students a threat to its rule. But China’s workers, and those who support their pursuit of justice, have demonstrated a determination to press on—come wind or rain.

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