Missing Chinese labour activists freed after being held for more than a year

Kinling Lo

Five Chinese labour rights activists who went missing after being arrested have been released after 16 months in detention.

The five – Zhang Zhiru, Wu Guijun, Jian Hui, Song Jiahui and He Yuancheng – returned home on Thursday evening, according to a Hong Kong-based rights group China Labour Bulletin.

They had been arrested by police for allegedly “disturbing public order” on January 20 last year as part of a crackdown triggered by an attempt by factory workers to form a trade union.

Jian was arrested in Changsha, the capital of Hunan province, while the others were detained in the southern province of Guangdong.

In a closed-door trial, Zhang and Wu were sentenced to three years imprisonment, suspended for four years, while the other three were sentenced to 18 months, suspended for two years, the group said.

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The activists were released on April 24, but they had to spend 14 days in quarantine before going home because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Han Dongfang, founder of the group, said the families of the activists only found out what had happened to them when they returned home.

The last known news of the five was in February last year, when the workers’ rights group reported that Zhang, Wu and He had been charged by police. It is not known when Jian and Song were officially charged.

Their families reported being harassed by authorities following arrests, while Han said the five had declined the services of the lawyers hired by their families under pressure from the “relevant departments”.

The coordinated arrest of the group was part of Beijing’s nationwide crackdown on labour activism that was widely believed to have been triggered by demonstrations at Jasic International, a welding machinery manufacturer in the southern city of Shenzhen in 2018.

Zhang Zhiru had previously been detained for advising workers in a dispute with their employer. Photo: Handout

Over 30 labour activists, factory workers, students and trade union officials were detained during the crackdown.

In July 2018, workers at Jasic staged protests after being fired by their employer for attempting to form an autonomous trade union.

It is unclear whether the arrest of the five was related to the Jasic case – which had brought attention to labour tensions in the prosperous technology hub – but Zhang and Wu were well-known for their labour activism in the city.

Wu was detained for 13 months on charges of “gathering a crowd and disturbing the order of public transport” after taking part in a demonstration of hundreds of workers at a furniture factory in Shenzhen in 2013.

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He faced several court hearings before the charges were eventually dropped by prosecutors.

Zhang and Lin worked together at the Chunfeng Labour Dispute Service Centre, a Shenzhen-based workers’ rights group.

Both were detained in 2014 for advising workers in the Yue Yuen strike, a dispute over welfare benefits in the industrial hub of Dongguan that became one of the biggest in recent years.

Zhang was held for two days while Lin was held for 30.

He was the former editor of the website Collective Bargaining Forum while Song led a successful collective bargaining case at the Lide shoe factory in Guangzhou in 2015.

Han said: “If China’s official trade union [the All China Federation of Trade Unions] had been more inclusive and worked together with these civil society activists, the benefit for workers would have been even greater. This is an important lesson that the union still needs to learn, and we urge the ACFTU to do just that so as to avoid unnecessary drama in the future.

“Usually, when Chinese workers’ rights and interests are violated, they either put up with it or go on street to fight for their rights. This is because Chinese trade unions do not actively negotiate with employers on behalf of workers’ interests.

“With the pandemic causing the cliff drop of orders and shutdown of manufactures, the resulting cases of wage arrears are likely to increase dramatically, and workers will especially need the union to negotiate with employers on behalf of them.”

Additional reporting by Guo Rui

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