Labour activist Chen Weixiang and two associates have been released after spending 15 days in administrative detention. They had been taken away by police in the southern city of Guangzhou on 17 December last year.
After his release, Chen thanked his supporters and urged everyone not to forget the many labour activists and others who are still in detention.
Chen, known as “Xiangzi,” ran a public WeChat account called Heart Sanitation (心环卫) that published news about sanitation workers’ struggles and provided information about their legal rights. Just three days before Chen’s detention, for example, the platform published an article on 130 sanitation workers in Guangzhou’s University Town district who were owed 1.8 million yuan in wage arrears.
The son of migrant workers, Chen has long been an advocate for the rights and interests of sanitation workers. However, his activism meant that he could not find work in Guangzhou after graduating from Sun Yat-sen University Medical School in 2015. He eventually went to the United States in 2017 and received a master’s degree in Labor and Global Workers’ Rights at Penn State University.
He returned to Guangzhou this year and set up Heart Sanitation, which soon became a popular forum for sanitation workers in the city who have long suffered from low pay, excessive working hours and informal employment with few if any benefits.
Guangzhou’s sanitation workers have organized several successful strikes in the past over pay and contract disputes but as the cost of living continues to rise, wages have stagnated, placing even more pressure on the usually elderly migrant workers who clean the city’s streets. In this regard, Chen’s group provided a much needed and valuable service that has now, for the time being at least, been supressed.
Chen was the latest activist to be detained simply for helping disadvantaged workers defend their rights. Last year began with the detention of three labour activists and citizen journalists from iLabour who had been helping migrant workers with occupational disease defend their rights. Around the same time, Shenzhen police detained five activists including well-known campaigners Zhang Zhiru and Wu Guijun. Prominent anti-discrimination activist Cheng Yuan, and his two colleagues, Liu Dazhi and Wu Gejianxiong, were detained by the authorities in Changsha in July, and several well-known social workers who had been helping migrant workers in Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen were detained in coordinated raids in May. In late October, #MeToo activist and journalist Huang Xueqin was also detained by the authorities in Guangzhou. Some of the activists were quietly released without charge while others have been formally charged and await trial.
This article was originally published on 19 December 2019 and was updated on 3 January 2020 after Chen's release.