When Shen Mengyu (沈夢雨) graduated with a master’s degree from a top Chinese university in 2015, she could have landed a comfortable job in government or at one of China’s Internet giants.
Instead, she went to work at an auto parts factory in Guangzhou, pursuing her interest in labor activism.
In May, she was fired for organizing workers at the plant. Undeterred, she began advocating for workers trying to form an autonomous trade union at Jasic International, a welding machinery exporter in nearby Shenzhen.
Shen is part of a cohort of activists across China who have been supporting and publicizing worker protests and detentions at a time of slowing economic growth.
The activists include students and recent graduates, as well as retired factory workers and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members.
While they appear to be small in number, the activists are drawing rare attention to calls for greater union representation from Chinese workers, particularly in the south, where demands for more pay are growing.
This unrest poses a challenge for the ruling CCP, which opposes independent labor action and punishes protesters. It also views the activists as a threat to its authority.
Shen last week told reporters that she believed authorities had been intimidating her parents to get her to stop her activism.
On Saturday night, after dining with her parents near the Jasic factory, Shen was bundled into a car by three unidentified men, two student activists from Peking University who were at the scene told reporters
“Mengyu was shouting: ‘What are you doing? Let me go, let me go,’” one of the students said. “Everything happened so quickly, we ran to get help and by the time we came back she and the car had disappeared.”
The students said they reported the abduction to the police, who doubted their account and refused to take down crucial parts of their statement.
They were also told that video cameras at the location of the incident were broken.
Calls to Shen and the police went unanswered on Monday.
Local police on Monday said on their official social media account that they had been in contact with Shen’s parents.
“This is a matter regarding a family dispute, it is not a kidnapping,” police said, without further explanation.
Reporters were unable to reach Shen’s parents.
Protests at the Jasic factory broke out early last month after seven workers attempting to form a union and elect their own leaders were laid off. On July 27, after two weeks of protests, police detained 29 people, including laid-off workers, their families and supporters.
Hundreds of Chinese university students penned open letters on social media in support of the workers and about 20 traveled to the city in Guangdong Province.
Unions in China have to register with the official All-China Federation of Trade Unions.
However, rights groups have said the federation is often more responsive to the demands of management than workers.
On Monday last week, about 50 student activists and supporters of the Jasic workers protested outside the police station where the workers were detained in Shenzhen.
“Lots of fellow students say: ‘This incident is about workers, what does this have to do with students?’ I’ll tell them one thing: Today’s students are tomorrow’s workers,” Yue Xin, a 22-year-old recent graduate of Peking University, said in a video from the protest that she shared online.
Yue, a factory worker in southern China, gained prominence in April for pressing her university to make public an investigation into a decades-old rape and suicide case.
The people who traveled to Shenzhen have been facing pressure from their universities, parents and officials, according to nine activists interviewed by reporters.
“My university adviser has called me repeatedly, accusing me of being involved in illegal activities,” one activist from a Guangdong university said, adding that he had been told “to think very carefully about what I was doing and how it might impact my studies and my future.”
Some supporters were intercepted on their way to Shenzhen and sent home, the students said.
In interviews, some activists said they were motivated by growing inequality in China and read about worker protests on online forums before posts were removed by authorities.
They said they were also exposed to labor issues at student-run university clubs and reading groups.
“Both my parents are factory workers, so I have always had an interest in labor rights,” said one of the activists who saw Shen taken away.
The students often speak the same language of Marxist theory and egalitarianism used by the CCP, yet have found themselves at odds with authorities.
In November last year, Peking University graduate Zhang Yunfan was detained in Guangzhou after founding a reading group focused on improving the plight of factory workers.
In an online statement on July 29, Jasic denied mistreating workers or blocking their union, saying that it fired some workers in accordance with the law and that a union was being established.
Jasic did not respond to a faxed request for further comment.
Shenzhen police said a group of former Jasic workers who illegally entered the factory were being held for investigation.
The Shenzhen Ministry of Public Security and a detention center where the workers were being held did not respond to faxed requests for comment.
Authorities have been keeping close tabs on the factory workers, students and other supporters, according to interviews and eyewitness accounts.
The students — who are renting accommodation near the Jasic factory — have said that they have had to move three times after police pressured landlords to evict them.
People who appeared to be plainclothes police were keeping a close eye on the building where the activists were staying during a recent visit by reporters.
Police had also set up a fake factory recruitment stand outside the building and a mole infiltrated the group by posing as a former factory worker, the activists said.
Their claims could not be verified by reporters.
The factory workers and their supporters communicated with reporters through multiple telephone numbers and WeChat accounts that were continuously shut down.
China does not publish official statistics on numbers of worker protests and strikes.
Former workers at Jasic, which employs more than 1,000 people, have said conditions in the company’s factory are dire.
“Sometimes we would work for one month straight without any time off,” said 25-year-old Huang Lanfeng, a former Jasic employee who was detained for protesting. “They wouldn’t let us freely quit and they even watched us go to the toilet.”
“I’ve worked at a lot of factories and none were as bad as Jasic,” she added.
Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin communications director Geoffrey Crothall said the protests could resonate at other factories.
“It certainly has the potential to be replicated if the workers from another factory are similarly motivated and well-organized,” he said.
The CCP has pushed for unions to better protect workers, but the efforts were “superficial,” he said.
“It really does impinge on the party’s legitimacy,” Crothall said.
As of Sunday, 15 of the detained workers and supporters had been freed.
Four detainees told reporters that they were treated harshly in detention, with police threatening them with death and saying that they would not be released unless they confessed.
The workers’ accounts jibe with stories from detained advocates in other incidents and follow an established pattern of Chinese police interrogation, Amnesty International Hong Kong-based researcher Patrick Poon (潘嘉偉) said.
The detentions have become an even greater rallying cry for the activists.
“What started out as a labor dispute turned into unfair dismissals and police abuse, which has galvanized supporters from both around the country and around the world,” Shen said on Monday last week, before her disappearance.
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