Jasic Detainee #2: Li Zhan: Standing with Workers through Thick and Thin

Li Zhan is one of four workers against whom charges have been pressed for “disturbing social order” in the course of the effort to form a union at the Jasic welding-equipment factory in Shenzhen, China. They have been held in detention and denied access to their lawyers as they await trial.

Note: Li Zhan is a former worker at the Jasic welding-equipment factory in China’s manufacturing hub of Shenzhen. He's been held in Shenzhen Number 2 detention center for over 100 days for supporting the effort to form a union at Jasic this summer. Li is one of four workers against whom charges have been pressed for “disturbing social order” in the course of the Jasic struggle. They have been held in detention and denied access to their lawyers as they await trial.

The following is a part of a series introducing the stories of the workers who initiated one of the most prominent labor struggles in China seen in recent years. As the workers await trial, the awareness and support of the public for their cases is critical. In this story, worker Awei shares his memories of Li Zhan, who has always stood with workers through thick and thin.


In April 2018, I first met Li Zhan for the first time. At that time, I had only just gotten a job. I could barely make ends meet. When I quit my last job, my boss had again stolen a month’s wages.

On the day I met Li Zhan, I had originally planned to take a girl I liked out to dinner. But I only had my a pair of worn out pants to put on. I decided not to go after some hesitation. Li Zhan saw my embarrassment. He took out a pair of brand new jeans he had just bought from the wardrobe and made me put them on. From that day onward, I have thought of him as a good friend.

Editor's Note:

Labor Notes is publishing a series of materials in English about the workers and labor activists who are still being detained for their role in the effort to organize a union at the Jasic factory in China’s manufacturing hub of Shenzhen.

Read other stories on their struggle at labornotes.org/jasic.

We haven’t known each other long, but he is not like any other friends I’ve met before. Some people are good to me, but only out of courtesy; others are good to me, but that’s because they want to get something from me. I am rather green to society, but I have met quite a few snobbish people. Only Li Zhan made me feel that he treats you well for its own sake.

His appearance looks rugged, with a bulky body, and a beard on his chin. It surprised me when I learned that he was born in 1992. He looks much older than his actual age. Until now, he’s already been imprisoned for over a month. Li Zhan, I wonder how much longer is your beard?

DETAINED FOR HELPING FORM A UNION

On July 27, my friend Li Zhan, was taken away by the police while speaking up for Jasic workers on union formation, and since then has not come back. Also taken away that day was his wife Aying.

Recently there was an article about Aying: “Woman worker Aying, a body of steel, a warm heart.” We could also use these words to describe Li Zhan.

My family’s condition is not good: my dad is in Shenzhen working, while my mom is in my hometown, spending time between working in agriculture and taking odd jobs in a factory there. The factory my mom works at provides no protection to the workers. Every day she has to be in contact with chemicals which burn her hands.

When I was growing up, I was at a live-in middle school in town. My classmates all had around 10 yuan ($1.50) each day to buy snacks or toys. But I only had 1 or 2 yuan ($0.15-$0.30), and sometimes I would have nothing at all. Because of this I always felt insecure, and I didn’t want to interact with my classmates. My teacher also didn’t like me. I also felt that I couldn’t learn anything from the books, so I didn’t want to study. As soon as I graduated from high school, I started the working journey like my parents.

When I told this story to Li Zhan, I saw his eyes were wet. After he settled himself a little, he said to me: “Ah Wei, your experience is also the experience of all of the migrant workers like us. The reason we workers are poor is not because we didn’t study hard when we were younger. No, it’s not on us. Workers’ kids have never had an equal footing with the children of the rich. The burden on the workers is too much, too heavy.”

I’ve finally understood something that had been bothering me for years—the reason behind why my life had been doomed from the very beginning, and why my parents had never been able to provide me more than the basics.

Before, I would blame and resent my parents—I would complain about their incapabilities—not only could they not accompany me because they were out working, but also they couldn’t earn much money. But after I’d become a worker, I realized that we are just a part of the machinery, that we have to devote everything to the factory: to produce and produce is our only purpose in this world. Just when I’d thought life has no meaning and is all grim, Li Zhan made me understand, we workers create all the wealth of the world, so we are the proudest group! And those who grow rich off our sweat do so by taking all the things we create, giving us only the smallest part back. Although they live a rich and fancy life, it is all built upon the toil of others. It’s a disgrace!

ALWAYS THERE TO HELP

Li Zhan once told me a story of which he was extremely proud. As early as high school, he began to fight for student rights. At that time, his did well in class and had good reputation among students, so he was chosen to be the student union’s president. But as a president, he wasn’t a giant bureaucrat helping the teachers stop the students’ “mischief”. On the contrary, he led the students in a canteen boycott, to protest against the school’s expensive but poor-quality food. Although he was sacked as president after this protest, he was still the student representative in the negotiation with the canteen company, pressuring the boss to improve the students’ food.

Although he entered society long ago, his determination and courage to serve the masses have not been worn down by this profit-oriented society. They have even become more unwavering and outstanding.

July in Shenzhen, the summer days are scorching, just two steps outside and you would be sweating all over. Li Zhan and I had originally made plans to go to his place for dinner after work. As soon as we arrived at his place, Xiao Zhi called asking Li Zhan to help him move from the dorms. Without another word, Li Zhan headed out with me in tow. I had just gotten off a day of work and was already beat—honestly, I didn’t want to move. Li Zhan came over, lightly patted my back and told me Xiao Zhi’s company was switching dorms, that the company had rented a truck and moved the luggage of all the upper management to the new dorms for free, but no one gave a thought to the regular workers, who were left to figure out how to move on their own. If his friends wouldn’t help him move, who else could he call on? If workers like us wouldn’t help each other with such small things like this, how hard would we all have it?

Before going to find Xiao Zhi, we first went to a corner store to borrow a tricycle where the boss lady asked teasingly, “Li Zhan, how many times have you borrowed the tricycle just this month? What do you do with it?”

Li Zhan gave an embarrassed laugh: “Ha ha, that’s the thing with having a lot of friends. I don’t know what it is but recently everyone is busy moving.”

Just when we had loaded Xiao Zhi’s luggage onto the tricycle and were getting ready to set out, something happened.

Xiao Zhi had just stopped the tricycle by the intersection when a Land Rover drove up and, angry at us for blocking his way, kept honking at us to get out of the way.

But the road was covered with lots of other workers’ luggage, and the tricycle was so big, we couldn’t immediately turn out of the way, we could only slightly move the tricycle. At the same time the Land Rover driver kept honking with this extremely unreasonable attitude. From the bottom of our hearts, we didn’t really want to deal with him.

The Land Rover driver, seeing we still hadn’t moved out of the way, opened the door, got out of his vehicle, and charged over to yell at us.

“Hey you blocking the road here, get that vehicle to one side.”

“Can’t you see there’s no way to move the vehicle? There’s luggage everywhere, how are we supposed to move it?” we reasoned with him.

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“Then move the luggage. Are your brains filled with water?” The Land Rover driver narrowed his eyes and glared at us with disdain.

Li Zhan tightened his fists and walked up to the driver: “Is that how you talk to people? That’s not our luggage, everyone’s luggage is here!”

“You’re not gonna move, is that it?” The driver charged up to us and like a madman knocked all the contents of the tricycle onto the ground. The luggage we had just packed scattered all over.

“What are you doing!?” Xiao Zhi was furious and rushed up to try to block him. Without a word, the Land Rover driver raised a U-lock he held in his hands and hit Xiao Zhi’s left hand with it. Xiao Zhi cried out in pain.

“You dare hit people!” Li Zhan charged up and bear-hugged the Land Rover driver, trying to snatch the U-lock in his hands. Just then, a few security guards had gotten wind of the incident and rushed over to pull Li Zhan away. The Land Rover driver, frightened by Li Zhan’s anger, quickly got into his car under the security guard’s protection and drove away by a different route. As he left he didn’t forget to curse us in an exasperated rage: “You stupid workers, it’s no wonder people look down on you!”

After the Land Rover driver left, an older woman moving near us whispered to us that that person was none other than the chief security guard of a nearby factory. He was always that bossy and domineering, she said.

Li Zhan and I quickly sent Xiao Zhi to a hospital. As Xiao Zhi was getting his wound treated, he winced at the pain. Li Zhan sitting by Xiao Zhi’s side, started sobbing.

Li Zhan’s eyes were red. He held Xiao Zhi’s shoulder, whispering “Sorry, Xiao Zhi. I couldn’t protect you.”

That night, on the way from the hospital, I felt the hint of disappointment from Li Zhan which I had never seen before.

Suddenly, he gave a long sigh, “Ai, people who work, when will we stop getting pushed around?” I might have heard the sound of a whimper again.

’OUR FACTORY IS UNSCRUPULOUS TOO’

In March this year, Li Zhan and Aying’s son “Little Hammer” was born. In July, they showed us the little boy’s photo proudly. We asked where “Little Hammer” was, and why they didn’t bring him along. In fact, before “Little Hammer” could recognize his parents, he was sent back to their hometown, being raised by his grandparents.

We all felt that it was a pity that the kid couldn’t live with his parents at such a young age, growing up as a left-behind child.

But Li Zhan and Aying acted normal. While looking at “Little Hammer’s” photo, they said this with a smile: “Yes, he is a left-behind child. Aren’t all migrant workers’ families like this?”

I couldn’t imagine that they would put a nursing mom behind bars, and for as long as a month! And Li Zhan hasn’t been able to hear the news from “Little Hammer” or see him for more than three months!

When the workers heard that he was detained for supporting the Jasic workers’ effort to form a union, they were all outraged. The police from the Yanzi Ling team hit the workers who sought justice, and detained the workers. It is so unreasonable! No matter what the Xinhua News Agency or other media outlets say, workers know very clearly what the facts are. Some workers said, “Jasic is truly an unscrupulous factory, but our factory is unscrupulous too. It will be good if that is exposed as well.”

It’s only because many people are worried about retaliation, and the family behind them, that they don’t dare to come out and support.

PASSING THE BATON

Originally this was a matter irrelevant to Li Zhan. But I was not surprised that he was among the first round the people detained.

I could even imagine that when he heard about this matter, for sure he would have been immediately marching out to show his support without a word, just like how he helped the workers move before.

As expected, according to Aying’s description later, Li Zhan was at work while he saw the news. He immediately stopped his work and marched out to the police station. If he had an ordinary family, how insecure, how worrying it would be to a wife for having such a “nosy” husband. Though Aying worries about Li Zhan a lot, she supports the oppressed workers under any circumstances! They usually cook together—with their own money—to provide food for those poor workers. On July 20, after Li Zhan was detained the first time, Aying bravely stepped out immediately, “taking the baton” from her husband. She sent out a letter to society seeking for help, and exposing the crime of the evil security guard and the evil police. Her letter was like a chant of the battle cry!

For friends, and for the workers they don’t even know, Li Zhan and Aying both step out again and again. I know that speaking for them is actually speaking for myself. Just like Li Zhan always says, “We are all workers. When workers are being pushed around, we should all support each other. If workers don’t speak for workers, no one will speak for us.”

Li Zhan is an ordinary person. He didn’t do anything extraordinary, but this person who did a lot of little things has become the person who the workers look to when they have problems. He is the person who the workers can’t live without. He and his wife, Aying, are both kind-hearted and incorruptible people!

Meanwhile, though some government departments put up signs that say, “No slacking for the people,” they never help people solve any actual problems. People even have to avoid them: to avoid getting fines.

Li Zhan is virtuous, and knows what to love and hate. He never bows down to the evil power, but fights back! However, the evil powers’ doing made other workers see clearly that we are the only one who can speak for us workers, and fight for our own rights.

To the evil powers in Guangdong: Every day the workers have to stay in jail is another day you must drown in the spit of the people. We hope that you will stop acting against the will of your countrymen, and immediately acquit and release Yu Jun Cong, Liu Peng Hua, Mi Jiu Ping, Li Zhan, and other worker representatives and supporters of union formation!

Worker Awei is a member of the Jasic Worker Support Group. Translated by I.