In an attempt to suppress growing unity, the Chinese government chose to arrest, detain, and even kidnap activists.
“Proletarians of the world, unite!” – a line from The Communist Manifesto written by Karl Marx with the assistance of Friedrich Engels – is one of the most famous political rallying cries in the history of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Before the PRC was founded in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had used this slogan to inspire many young activists, urging them to join the CCP and fight for a communist state. During the Mao era, this slogan was seen as a piece of self-evident truth. Even after China adopted the reform and opening up policy, when the whole nation focused all its attention on market rather than ideology, this slogan would still show up from time to time in China’s history dramas or patriotism shows.
However, 69 years after the PRC was founded, the Chinese government can’t tolerate China’s college students and labor workers truly uniting in reality. In an attempt to suppress this unity – centered on efforts to improve labor rights – the Chinese government chose to arrest, detain, and even kidnap young activists. And the situation is getting increasingly ugly.
“People in Black Clothing Beat Me in Peking University”
On November 10, Yu Tianfu, 22, a student at Peking University, posted a long article and a video online, describing a shocking assault that happened on the campus of China's top-level university. Immediately, his posts went viral on the internet.
According to Yu’s accounts, at about 10:30 p.m. on November 9, he was on his way from a cafe back to his dormitory on campus when “at least five men in black clothing” came toward Yu “like a flood.”
He recalled the following violent scene in detail:
One person locked my neck with his elbow and pushed me forward. The rest of the people grabbed my waist and immediately threw me to the ground. In the chaos, my glasses were smashed while the two men fiercely pressed me to the ground. The person on the right side gripped my mouth tightly…
I struggled to ask them: “Who are you? Why do you do this?”
Before I finished my questions, a person next to me pointed at my head and said, "You fucking make another sound, I’ll beat you again!" And a tall man lifted his leg and kicked my head violently several times…
When my eyes were blurred, I heard a man in black yelling, “It's him! Put him into the car, hurry.” What followed was the sound of something slamming on a car door, and I saw blurrily a classmate being forced into their car...Then I saw several black cars drive fast to the south gate, disappearing into the night...
Later, Yu learned that several other students who had been passing by – just like himself – were also harshly beaten by people in black clothing. As for the “classmate” who was “kidnapped,” it turned out to be Zhang Shengye, a recent Peking University graduate.
Yu demanded in his article: “What kind of privilege do they have to completely disregard the law and civil rights? How dare they unscrupulously and arrogantly beat up students and kidnap one at Peking University!”
On November 11, the answer was revealed.
Peking University’s security department announced on the university’s internal website that the incident involved “the public security organs arresting off-campus personnel suspected of committing crimes according to law, which involved no faculty or students in the school.” This announcement intentionally ignored the fact that several students were severely beaten and the “off-campus personnel” was actually a recent graduate.
Meanwhile, Yu’s article and video were completely wiped from Chinese social media by China’s censors.
Reached by The New York Times via phone, Yu said he stood by his account but declined to comment further.
“Unity Is Power”
In the most recent Peking University case, Yu was an “innocent” bystander. The only target of those plainclothes public security officers (the “people in black clothing”) was Zhang Shengye, a young Marxist activist.
For months, Zhang, together with many other Chinese college students, had been actively advocating for Chinese factory workers’ labor rights.
According to multiple non-mainland Chinese media outlets, in May, the factory workers of Jasic Technology – a company based in Shenzhen – attempted to form an independent trade union. However, the company, supported by the local government, tried every means to stop them. In early July, workers who had been actively establishing the trade union found themselves fired by the company. Some workers were beaten by unidentified people, but the local police didn’t do much to pursue the attackers.
On July 20, more than 20 Jasic workers and supporters were arrested by local police officers. This led to more workers staging a protest outside the local police station. They demanded their legitimate rights and sang the song “Unity Is Power” while standing together. The protesters released an open letter online, asking for national support.
While more Jasic workers joined in the protest against the local police station in the following days, many college students – particularly left-wing students who believe in Marxism – also established a supporting group for Jasic workers across the country.
Notably, a large number of these students came from China’s most prominent universities, including Peking University.
With impressive eloquence, strong logic, efficient execution, and natural mastery of social media, these student activists soon made the protest organized, orderly, and known to the world.
They created custom white T-shirts emblazoned with five workers standing side by side and the slogan “Unity Is Power.” They widely publicized the protest on international social media platforms including Facebook and Twitter, calling for international attention. They summoned more supporters online, vowing to gather in Shenzhen together with Jasic workers. Most strikingly, Yue Xin, a recent graduate of Peking University, wrote a petition letter to Chinese President Xi Jinping in mid-August. In his letter, citing Xi’s own words, Yue urge the president to defend Jasic workers’ proper rights according to the Chinese Constitution.
It’s particularly worth mentioning here that Yue Xin is also a lead activist in China’s #MeToo movement. She single-handedly exposed the hidden darkness in Peking University by publishing a series of public letters online, despite extremely strong pressure. So even before the Jasic workers’ protest, she was already well-known among many Chinese netizens. Her participation further empowered the Jasic protest, but also brought more danger to herself and others.
The Nationwide Arrest of Activists
The student activists’ mobilizing skill and their unexpected power apparently shocked the Chinese central government.
On August 24, China’s state news agency published an article, accusing the Jasic workers of “provoking troubles and disturbing social order” with the support of Western powers.
On the same day, a large number of riot police stormed into the apartment building where the protesters were staying, arresting more than 50 labor workers and students activists, including Yue Xin. As of the time of writing, Yue, together with many other activists, still remains incommunicado.
Zhang Shengye, the recent graduate of Peking University who was “kidnapped” by people in black clothing, was also one of the student activists, but he was not arrested at the time.
Rather than staying quiet, Zhang launched another movement called “searching for Yue.” Following in Yue’s footsteps, Zhang published a public letter online, describing all the horrible things the activists have experienced and calling for national support. Unsurprisingly, his eloquent letter also exploded on the internet.
The “kidnapping” of Zhang on the night of November 9 was actually a part of the second round of arrests targeting these activists. According to multiple foreign media outlets, at least 10 student activists and factory workers in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou were taken away by security forces on the same night.
Obviously, given the coordination, this was a national operation directed by the central authorities rather than the local governments. The CCP, which overthrew its rival Kuomintang during the 1949 civil war by mobilizing students, workers, and farmers, knows too well the power of unity. The latest move indicates that the central authorities have already made up their mind to harshly clamp down on the unity of students activists and labor workers, in order to nip civil power in the bud.
However, in China, there is a famous saying: “A single spark can start a prairie fire.” The chain actions of Yue Xin, Zhang Shengye, and Yu Tianfu have shown that even for the most powerful government, it’s still hard to quench a spark once it is lit.