Why you should care
Nationwide student protests carry shades of the country’s student movements of the 1980s.
Students from China’s top universities are flouting government restrictions to support workers detained for trying to organize a trade union, following the biggest mass arrest of workers since 2015. Workers at Shenzhen’s Jasic Technology were arrested last week for protesting against the engineering company’s decision to prevent them from forming a trade union. About 30 protesters remain in detention, including a student supporter.
Although worker protests have become increasingly common amid China’s slowing economy, arrests are rare. The Jasic demonstration is also unusual in being a protest for political rights — the right to form a union — as opposed to a pay dispute, which is more common.
The arrests and swift censorship of petitions highlights how sensitive workers’ rights are in a nominally communist country. President Xi Jinping has warned that “unbalanced and inadequate development” is the major problem facing the regime.
Student groups across China are now publishing online petitions in support of the workers, with 11 universities circulating petitions by Thursday morning, and more than 1,600 signatories. “Our ancestors’ baton is firmly in our hands,” reads one petition by students from Peking University, echoing old Communist Party slogans: “Long live the working class!”
What it [the Jasic case] has done … is capture the public imagination both in China and outside.
Geoff Crothall, China Labour Bulletin, Hong Kong
Despite reflecting familiar communist ideas, several petitions have been censored and their organizers’ email addresses blocked. At least two such addresses returned a “user suspended” error from 163.com, the Chinese internet services company.
“Students’ attention toward workers’ struggles is increasing nowadays, partly with the ease of spreading information over the internet,” says one Tsinghua University student at the site of the protests in Shenzhen. “But we face pressure from our universities, who want to control student societies, and who will put pressure on us via our parents.”
Many of the students supporting the strike have worked as interns in labor rights nongovernmental organizations, which have suffered increasing restrictions under Xi, such as pressure from local police in collaboration with landlords to leave their office spaces. Yue Xin, the organizer of the Peking University petition, had previously been placed under effective house arrest after questioning her university’s handling of a Me Too sexual assault case.
“The Jasic case is certainly untypical,” says Geoff Crothall of China Labour Bulletin (CLB), a Hong Kong–based workers’ advocacy group. “What it has done, however, is capture the public imagination both in China and outside and really highlight the need for an effective trade union presence in the workplace.”
Last November, police stormed a Marxist-inspired reading group at the Guangdong University of Technology and arrested students, accusing some of the generic crime of “gathering crowds to disrupt social order,” according to student testimony.
According to CLB data, only 23 of 1,049 workers’ disputes this year involved arrests, and the most recent comparable crackdown occurred in December 2015, when 30 labor rights activists and workers were detained in Guangzhou.
Jasic Technology exports welding machine parts to U.S. companies, including Lincoln Electric, according to trade data group Import Genius. Jasic Technology denied it had obstructed the establishment of a trade union, and wrote in a public statement that it had been setting up a “trade union according to law” since May, “under the guidance of the district and street trade unions,” referring to the Communist Party’s official union structure, which disallows employees’ self-formed unions.
Shenzhen Pingshan police wrote in a social media post: “The employees of the company … did not initiate preparatory activities in accordance with the provisions of the trade union law. After discovering the problems, the district and street trade unions promptly corrected their behavior.”
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