In a country intolerant of dissent, vocal critics may be living on borrowed time. This proved true for labour rights activist Wei Zhili who, in March, was caught up in Chinese authorities’ sweeping crackdown against protestors.

Wei was detained along with two other labour activists by Guangzhou police for “disturbing social order” – a vague charge frequently levelled at critics.

The 30-year-old, who was an editor of the online worker advice platform iLabour, was helping Hunan labourers claim compensation for pneumoconiosis – an occupational disease caused by inhaling silica dust. The disease has ravaged the lungs of around 6 million people, many of them rural migrant workers, according to Beijing-based NGO Love Save Pneumoconiosis.

Wei zhili zheng churan
Photo: FreeWeiZhili.

His abrupt detention has left his wife, feminist activist Zheng Churan, in the dark. Zheng, 29, rose to prominence as a member of the quintet “Feminist Five” – a collective of women who, in 2015, were arrested in Beijing for handing out stickers about sexual harassment on public transport.

After a viral campaign under the hashtag #FreeTheFive, the women were released on bail, 37 days after their arrest. Their detention firmly solidified them as the contemporary poster children of feminist dissent in China.

It is safe to assume, then, that Zheng knows how to wield the power of the internet. And so, every day, she has vowed to tweet an image of masks worn by supporters of the three detainee’s faces until their release. It is a form of activism that she says helps to offset the pain of being separated from her husband.

Don’t ‘forget about him’

Zheng, popularly known as “Datu,” at times puts forward an image of non-conformity. Her Twitter profile picture depicts her with bright magenta hair, cut across her face in a choppy pixie crop. In other pictures, posted on a public website, she appears alongside her husband, both draped in casual wear as the pair beam at each other, generally holding a sign or two. 

It is on the same webpage that she details their “love story,” a raw account of their relationship that spares no details: “Our love transcends casual activities, passionate sex and everyday life. It is bound by a shared sense of social responsibility,” she writes.

Photo: FreeWeiZhili/Facebook.

Zheng told HKFP that behind this intimate insight into the pair behind the placards is a desire to keep Wei’s name alive in the public consciousness. “I wanted to write down our story and let the world know how great he is,” she said. “I wanted to let people know that he’s a very responsible guy who cares about workers and their rights. I don’t want people to forget about him.”

The night before Wei was taken in, the pair sat down for a late-night meal, where he shared a story about a mother who had lost three sons to pneumoconiosis.

“Before I knew him, I didn’t think much about worker’s rights,” Zheng explained. “He made me see the wider picture.”

Tightening screws

According to Wei’s lawyer, Fan Biaowen, police forced the activist to return to Guangzhou where, upon searching his home, they claimed to find several mobile phones he had stolen – an accusation that Zheng describes as a lie. “It’s so not true,” she said. “I think it’s a stupid excuse for them to use to humiliate Wei.”

His arrest comes at a time when Chinese authorities have tightened their grip on labour activism. Yang Zhengjun, the editor-in-chief of Wei’s iLabour news platform, has also been detained since January for allegedly “picking quarrels and disturbing public order.” Wei’s colleague Ke Chengbing has also been arrested.

Zheng was floored, saying that in the months following her husband’s detention, she lost all appetite and contracted chronic laryngitis. She added that neither she nor Wei’s family received an official notice of detention.

League of social democrats Wei Zhili
Protesters organised by the League of Social Democrats campaign outside the China Liaison Office in Hong Kong for the release of Yang Zhengjun, Wei Zhili and Ke Chengbing, as well an end to the crackdown on online media in China. Photo: Global Support for Disappeared Left Activists in China/Facebook.

“I am extremely nervous and exhausted, I can’t do my daily work,” she explained. “I cry and think about his health. He has a bad stomach and I hope he isn’t sick.”

Zheng has since felt the long arm of state control reach into most corners of her life. First, her social media was gagged. A WeChat account she had used for over five years was abruptly taken offline and, a few seconds after registering anew, she was blocked from posting publicly or sending group messages.

Meanwhile, 7,500 yuan (HK$8,768) in her WeChat Wallet was reportedly seized by its owner Tencent, who reluctantly agreed to refund the money after Zheng filed a complaint and publicised the incident on her public account “Brainwasher”(Guntong Xinaoji), which in turn was subsequently deleted.

Almost simultaneously, Zheng said, her Weibo account @datuzhibengbengda, used to publicise stories about Wei, was banned.

It was an experience that she likened to being silenced by death. “They took him away and forbade me from crying out. They cut out my vocal cords and forbade me from shedding tears for him in public,” she added.

‘In limbo’

Zheng has since spent 36 days in limbo, with limited information being drip-fed from tightlipped authorities.

According to a statement from activists, police said on April 20 that Wei had been placed under “Residential Surveillance in a Designated Location (RSDL)” – a controversial form of detention used against those accused of endangering national security.

“In RSDL, people can disappear off the streets for up to six months and be placed in solitary confinement in custom-built prisons operating outside the judicial system,” human rights NGO Safeguard Defenders’ RSDL monitor wrote.

Zheng and supporters were shaken by the news. “We don’t know if he is safe. We’ve heard about a lot of people who were tortured while in RSDL,” she said.

About 100 workers afflicted with pneumoconiosis signed a petition earlier this month for the release of Wei and the other two detained activists.

Meanwhile, an international backlash has mounted against the detention of the three, with messages of solidarity emerging from supporters in the US, France and elsewhere.

In March, Hong Kong political party the League of Social Democrats organised a protest outside the China Liaison Office in Hong Kong calling for the immediate release of Wei, Yang, and Ke.

NGO Amnesty International also invited supporters on Thursday to write to Song Yiyang, the director of Shenzhen City Pingshan District Public Security Sub-Bureau, urging his department to “immediately” release Wei unless there is substantial evidence to justify his continued detention.

Police in Shenzhen did not immediately respond to HKFP’s request for comment.

Despite the information black hole, Zheng remains resolute in her campaign to free her husband, one social media post at a time.

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Jennifer Creery is a Hong Kong-born British journalist, interested in minority rights and urban planning. She holds a BA in English at King's College London and has studied Mandarin at National Taiwan University.