Repression in China: Arrested, Interrogated, Disappeared

by Ralf Ruckus

[deutsch | english] – This is the English translation of a German article for the Swiss weekly WOZ (published August 8, 2019) on the wave of repression in China against activists who fight for workers interests or other social causes.


The past few months have shown again how the Chinese state is dealing with dissent: since May [2019], security forces have arrested a dozen members of left-wing networks. All in all, more than 100 people have been detained or simply “disappeared” since mid-2018.

The starting point for the recent wave of repression was a protest at the welding machine factory Jasic Technology in Shenzhen, South China, a year ago. The protesters demanded better working conditions for the 1,000 employees and an end to arbitrary dismissals. When they tried to establish a workplace union and got the support of ten percent of the workers, the company management reacted with further dismissals while the police started to make arrests. After several demonstrations in front of a local police station, thirty more people were detained.

On left-wing media platforms, the case was widely discussed and triggered a wave of support – above all from Maoist student groups. Several activists went to Shenzhen and organized further protests, and dozens of them were arrested, too.

New Interest in Workers’ Struggles

Struggles against bad working conditions are not uncommon in China, neither is the dismissal of activists. However, the Jasic case is unusual because so many students supported the protests, and the state reacted with eminently harsh repression.

Since the strike of migrant workers in a Honda factory in Foshan, South China, in 2010, obtained large wage concessions and triggered a wave of other strikes, left-wing students have been more interested in workers’ struggles again. In the past ten years, an increasing number of students have participated in Maoist study circles and support groups. Some have even worked in factories themselves in order to promote the struggles. During the Jasic campaign, there were able to use their organizational strength.

Up until recently, the Chinese state cracked down on liberals, human rights lawyers, and people it suspected of participating in the resistance in Tibet or the Uyghur region Xinjiang. However, left-wing activists were mostly tolerated as long as they did not criticize the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) directly. That has meanwhile changed. In March 2015, the police arrested several feminists who wanted to protest against sexual harassment; and in December of the same year, several activists were detained who had supported strikes in South China.

The current wave of repression is going even further: in the past twelve months, many left-wing activists have been temporarily detained, interrogated, or threatened, and over 100 have been arrested – not just people from the Jasic campaign but also from other support groups, NGOs, and left-wing media. About fifty are still in detention, several at unknown locations. Several were kidnapped off the street or placed under so-called Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location (RSDL) – a kind of secret prison system where people can be detained for up to six months. Some were forced to make public confessions reminiscent of the show trials of the Mao era. Those who got released are still under surveillance and cannot openly talk about their experiences.

Among those who are still in detention are the Jasic workers Yu Juncong and the former student Shen Mengyu. Yu Juncong was dismissed for trying to set up a workplace union, and then got arrested. Shen Mengyu, who had worked in an auto parts factory herself before she got sacked, supported the Jasic campaign afterwards – and, according to reports, was pulled into a car by unknown agents. Also in detention is the activist Zhang Zhiru who has stood up for workers in South China for years.

Left-wing groups and NGOs like the China Labour Bulletin in Hong Kong have supported the arrested publicly, foreign media like the Financial Times or Reuters have published reports. In China, the space for such support has become narrow, as the case of Wei Zhili, the co-editor of the blog iLabour, shows. He was arrested in March 2019 when he publicly supported migrant workers who had contracted deadly silicosis after working on construction sites and asked for compensation. Wei Zhili’s partner Zheng Churan – one of the feminists who had been arrested in 2015 – wanted to organize a campaign for his release but was forced to leave her home, and her Chinese social media accounts were frozen. In order to escape censorship and organize support she is now using Facebook and Twitter both of which are blocked in China.

Structural Economic Problems

The reasons for the harsh repression are connected to the economic, political, and social situation the regime has been facing. The economy changes rapidly, partly because the government wants to reduce the dependency on exports and low-value manufacturing. In fact, exports are not as relevant as before while the importance of domestic consumption has increased. However, the state’s economic stimulus plans threaten to prolong the structural economic problems.

Investments are often financed by state-owned banks and carried out by state-owned companies. They are still the most important economic driving force. Without the state stimulus, the Chinese economy would hardly growth, and that would be a problem for the global economy, too. In the second quarter of 2019, China’s GDP grew by a mere 6.2 percent – the lowest number in decades. Last year, total debts amounted to 300 percent of GDP (after 180 percent in 2007). The government’s ability to react to crises with economic stimulus programs is therefore limited today. The trade war with the USA deepens the economic problems further and puts especially Chinese manufacturing under pressure.

In the past decade, labor shortages and workers’ protests led to higher wages – and that has put China’s status as a ‘cheap labor economy’ increasingly into question. The number of strikes has stagnated in the past few years, but some of the struggles showed signs of cross-regional coordination lately. Many workers suffer from underemployment as well as factory closures and relocations as evident during recent struggles against wage arrears and for compensations. A larger economic collapse could lead to new social demands and struggles if the state is not able to prevent or absorb it.

Since Xi Jinping rose to power in 2012, the CCP leadership has tried to repress protests and resistance, to improve its ability of crisis management, and to make the state machinery more efficient. As part of its anti-corruption campaign in party and state organs, more than one million cadres have been reprimanded, degraded, or arrested. In workplaces, more CCP cells have been founded, compliance with the party line in institutions of education and in the media has been enforced more strictly, and the usage of surveillance technologies and state censorship has been expanded. The suppression of the Muslim Uyghurs who are seen as a ‘separatist’ and ‘terrorist’ threat seems to serve as a kind of laboratory for increased surveillance and repression the whole population might be facing.

Against the State Machinery

In this situation, the CCP leadership wants to avoid potentially explosive events. A mobilization like the one around the Jasic factory is seen as threatening, the militancy and provocative actions of left-wing activist alarm the regime even more.
The recent wave of repression has triggered a lively debate on strategy within the Chinese left. On online blogs, the Maoists who stood behind the campaign have been criticized by other currents because they had tried to enforce the set-up of a workplace union despite weak support from workers and, thereby, allowed the struggle around the welding factory to escalate. The demonstrations in front of the local police station are described by some as unnecessary provocations of state powers. And it is assumed that people from outside were setting the tone during the protests, not workers.

Still, there is an agreement among activists that the CCP is the center of a right-wing state machinery that represses struggles against capitalist exploitation and attacks those who support those struggles. It is unlikely that the regime will give up its hard-line course – especially since the protests in Hong Kong have increased the regime’s nervousness even further.