By Yaqiu Wang

“The whole world is waiting for you to come back. ‘Hold fast to freedom in the wind and rain,’” wrote Zheng Churan in a postcard to her husband, Wei Zhili, a labour activist detained in March by authorities in the city of Shenzhen, southeast China.

“Hold fast to freedom in the wind and rain” are lyrics from “Glorious Days,” a rock song by the Hong Kong band Beyond that has become an anthem of sorts for political protests in the region. The phrase accurately describes the state of human rights activism in China today.

Ai xiaoming postcard
Photo: Ai Xiaoming via Twitter.

In addition to Wei, 30, an editor of the workers’ rights news website New Generation, Shenzhen police have also detained two other website editors, Yang Zhengjun, 33, and Ke Chengbing, 29, in January and March respectively. The trio has for years advocated for migrant workers who contracted silicosis, a deadly occupational lung disease caused by inhaling dust that contains silica, which is produced when rock and masonry are cut or drilled.

Millions of workers in China developed silicosis after working in coal mines or construction sites with little or no protection. Many of them did not have formal contracts with their employers, making it nearly impossible for them to get meaningful compensation. Those who petitioned the government for compensation are routinely harassed or detained. Ke, Wei, and Yang helped raise public awareness of the plight of silicosis victims, gave them advice on relevant laws, and joined their protests.

Zheng Churan and Wei Zhili.
Zheng Churan and Wei Zhili. Photo: Twitter.

After hearing the news that Wei was detained, more than a hundred silicosis-stricken workers in Hunan province who the three had previously helped decided to go to Shenzhen to show support, but police intercepted them at their departure train station.

These detentions are just the most recent in the government’s nationwide crackdown on labour activism. Over 40 workers and student activists connected to the Jasic Technology case – in which student activists supported workers in Shenzhen to form a union – remain in detention. In January, police in three cities across southern China detained five additional labour activists protesting over separate issues.

The Chinese Communist Party views the alliance between disaffected workers, activists, and students a threat to its rule. But China’s workers and those who support their pursuit of justice have demonstrated a determination to press on—come wind or rain.

human rights watch

Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch is a nonprofit, nongovernmental human rights organisation made up of roughly 400 staff members around the globe. Established in 1978, Human Rights Watch is known for its accurate fact-finding, impartial reporting, effective use of media, and targeted advocacy, often in partnership with local human rights groups. Human Rights Watch meets with governments, the United Nations, regional groups like the African Union and the European Union, financial institutions, and corporations to press for changes in policy and practice that promote human rights and justice around the world.