Labor rights researcher charged with subversion of state in China

A PhD student at the University of Hong Kong’s sociology department has reportedly been taken away by national security personnel in China’s Nanning City in Guangxi Province. His father sent out a plea on WeChat, claiming that his son Fang Ran has been put under “residential surveillance at a designated location” (RSDL) under the charge of “subversion of state power.”

Fang Ran, a PhD student at the University of Hong Kong’s (HKU) sociology department, has been reportedly put under RSDL in the name of “subversion of state power” on August 26. Fang has been focusing on labor issues in China over the last few years as a Ph.D. student and he was reportedly taken away by personnel from the Nanning City National Security Bureau.

Fang’s father sent out a plea on WeChat and screenshots of the messages were circulating on social media on Tuesday. He said both he and his son are members of the Chinese Communist Party and Fang has been pursuing his PhD degree at HKU since 2018, focusing on labor issues in China.

“ I was very surprised by this. In my mind, Fang Ran is definitely not a criminal who sabotages the Party’s cause, but an aspiring young man who is beneficial to our Party’s cause. He has been focusing on his studies over the last two years,” his father wrote.

One of Fang’s friends describes Fang as “knowledgeable and talkative,” and he says Fang has a very unique understanding of socialism and left-wing ideologies. “Fang Ran is a very powerful and bright student, but his enthusiasm for the political economy comes more from his concern for labors at the grassroots level,” his friend said.

“Compared to people who only talk about things on the Internet or become civil servants right after graduation, Fang is more involved in labor protection by fulfilling his knowledge in reality,” he added.

His friend said the last time he saw Fang was in Beijing this past June. They talked about each other’s dissertation but Fang didn’t mention anything about being targeted by national security agents. “I never imagine Fang would do anything dangerous so when something happened to him recently, I was really surprised,” he said.

Fang’s father cited passages from an article published in the name of Chinese President Xi Jinping in a state-run magazine to prove that what Fang is doing isn’t contradicting what Xi Jinping laid out through the article about the Chinese Communist Party’s principle of hiring laborers. “I hope the authorities will understand Fang Ran’s situation, and that Fang Ran will help complete the investigation and return to his studies as soon as possible,” he wrote.

His friend also hopes the authorities can explain why Fang was suddenly taken away by national security agents and why focusing on labor issues is viewed as an act of subverting state power. “Even if he has committed crimes of subverting state power, can he accomplish that on his own? Or is the reason why he is viewed as subverting state power is that he focuses on labor issues? Or is the country try to prove its ‘mightiness’ by arresting an outstanding student?” his friend asked.

China’s long history of persecuting labor rights activists

In fact, Fang Ran is not the first Chinese citizen to be arrested by Chinese national security agents for focusing on labor issues in China. In July, Cheng Yuen, Wu Ke-Chien-Xiong, and Liu Dazhi, were sentenced to five years, three years, and two years under the charges of subversion of state power. All three of them were part of a nonprofit organization in China’s Changsha that focuses on social welfare, health, and labor issues in China.

Cheng Yuen’s wife Mindy Shih said among the three of them, one of the reasons for the arrest of Wu was because he posted a document in an online forum focusing on the “996” work culture in China. The court in Changsha said one of his crimes was focusing on labor rights.

All three of them waited more than 700 days in detention before the court handed down their sentences last month. So far, only Liu has been released and Cheng and Wu are expected to be transferred to jail on September 2. Both of them haven’t been able to meet their lawyers since their initial arrest.

“All the issues that they have focused on in the past, including ending China’s family planning policy, abolish the social support fee, and focusing on labor rights issues, are all beneficial to the Chinese government and the CCP,” she said. “In fact, Chinese authorities have recently declared that the ‘996 work culture’ is illegal but those who advocated for the abolishment of these practices were being persecuted severely.”

Shih thinks such contradiction in Chinese society is very ridiculous. “What they are doing is beneficial to Beijing, but on the other hand, even if their efforts have been written into law, the government is still persecuting the activists,” she said. “My husband hasn’t been able to see a lawyer for more than 770 days, and he is likely going to keep facing forced disappearance later.”

Apart from Fang and the three activists in Changsha, dozens of students from top Chinese universities were also arrested and detained by Chinese police in October 2018, when they went to Shenzhen to support workers who were laid off by Jasic Technology in Shenzhen for trying to organize a union. The whereabouts of several student leaders remain unknown.

Fang’s friend said instead of targeting elite students upholding certain ideologies, the Chinese government is trying to nip the fire of any possible social movement. “Any political organization initiated by students will more or less threaten the stability of China’s bureaucratic system,” he said.

This piece was first published in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.

William Yang is a journalist based in Taiwan, where he writes about politics, society, and human rights issues in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.