He tried to prepare employees in China’s gig financial system. Now he is in jail 5 years in the past: NPR

A courier delivers goods on a street in Beijing at night in February. Costfoto / Barcroft Media via Getty Images Hide caption

Toggle labeling

Costfoto / Barcroft Media via Getty Images

A courier delivers goods on a street in Beijing at night in February.

Costfoto / Barcroft Media via Getty Images

BIJIE, China – Chen Guojiang rode an electric scooter through Beijing’s streets at sometimes death-defying speed, delivering hundreds of takeaway orders every day.

Along the way, he filmed short videos documenting the highly competitive conditions for China’s estimated 3 million workers using digital platforms for delivery orders. More than once, he has called for collective action against powerful e-commerce companies and called for better pay. That made 31-year-old Chen – or Mengzhu as he is known – one of the few remaining work organizers in China.

Then in February he disappeared. It was announced over the next month that he was in custody.

His arrest was a blow to emerging efforts to promote labor rights, which have become increasingly prominent during the coronavirus pandemic. It also reflects the political risks of agitating on behalf of delivery labor in a country whose ruling Communist Party has stopped organizing and is relying on consumerism and the service industry to stimulate economic growth.

“Anything that holds the collective power of workers together is seen as a threat to state power,” said Eli Friedman, a Cornell University professor who studies Chinese labor activism. “”[The authorities] I can’t accept an independent union or something that looks a bit like an independent union. That is a red line for the Chinese government. “

In March, almost a month after his disappearance, authorities confirmed that the police had arrested Mengzhu for engaging in disputes and provoking trouble – a collective charge commonly used to detain petty criminals and political activists.

Mengzhu’s case, however, is being treated with an unusual level of secrecy.

Shortly after the police confirmed that Mengzhu would be prosecuted, friends and supporters raised funds to help cover his legal fees. In a matter of days, they had raised about $ 20,000 – and the attention of China’s state security forces.

Security officers contacted each of the organizers of the fundraising campaign and warned them not to help Mengzhu, according to two people close to the organizers. They asked for anonymity when speaking to NPR because they feared government intimidation.

His family says two police officers traveled from Beijing to Mengzhu’s hometown in Bijie in March. a prefecture in remote southwestern Guizhou Province. They brought a brief sticky note with them informing the family that Mengzhu was being held at a police station in Beijing’s Chaoyang District, where he lived.

Mengzhu’s father, Chen Wanhua, goes for a walk in his hometown in Bijie, a prefecture in China’s Guizhou Province. Chen raised Mengzhu and his two sisters alone after his wife left the family. Amy Cheng / NPR hide caption

Toggle labeling

Amy Cheng / NPR

Mengzhu’s father, Chen Wanhua, goes for a walk in his hometown in Bijie, a prefecture in China’s Guizhou Province. Chen raised Mengzhu and his two sisters alone after his wife left the family.

Amy Cheng / NPR

His father, Chen Wanhua, said the two police officers asked him to sign the notice. The copy he was allowed to keep had three lines noticeably smeared and he was instructed to deliver the original in a sealed envelope to the local police station.

“I have no idea what those three lines said,” says older Chen from his house, hidden between the mountains of Bijie. Mengzhu faces a prison sentence of up to five years.

Mengzhu’s arrest comes even after the same day delivery service in China gains more social recognition for the vital economic and social role they play.

During widespread lockdowns imposed during China’s coronavirus epidemic, delivery workers became a lifeline transporting everything from food to medicines to millions of people trapped at home.

For China's overburdened deliverers, the customer - and the app - are always right

Some of China’s largest private companies like Baidu, Alibaba, and JD.com operate lucrative e-commerce and food platforms that rely on delivery workers braving city traffic, extreme weather, and broken elevators to fulfill orders.

Corporations have defended tightly managed gig work, arguing it created new jobs and a flexible source of additional income. After home delivery, services began to multiply five Years ago, the median wage for couriers was 10,000 yuan (US $ 1,500) per month, more than twice the median salary at the time. Delivery salaries have since dropped to around $ 800, according to an industry association.

Last year, delivery workers shipped around 60 billion orders across China, according to the government. Even if the volume of parcels and express coffee orders increases, the average payment of the delivery staff decreases. NPR found last year that companies reduced the per-package commissions they pay couriers by an average of 25%. Workers say tighter delivery times are forcing them to drive dangerously in China’s congested cities. Being late automatically results in heavy fines that you cannot deny.

In China's crackdown on human rights defenders

Some e-commerce delivery workers have tried to organize wildcat strikes demanding higher wages and a less strenuous work schedule.

“”Workers can simply be banned from using the [delivery] App again for causing issues with the platform, “said Aidan Chau, a researcher with the Hong Kong-based nonprofit China Labor Bulletin.

However, strikes are becoming rarer. CLB found at least 73 protests and strikes in the delivery industry in 2019, but only 41 last year as the pandemic hit lower-income workers hard. “Many new workers face economic hardship, so they are more tolerant of these work practices,” says Chau.

Mengzhu spoke quickly and intelligently in the street, trying to reverse this trend. On social media, tens of thousands of delivery drivers and drivers followed him on Douyin, the Chinese-language version of the video sharing network TikTok.

Some of China's liberated labor activists are starting new lives, but government pressure lurks

The delivery work initially gave him the opportunity to leave a difficult childhood behind in Bijie, an area that was once notorious for its poverty.

His mother left the family when Mengzhu was still in elementary school.

Mengzhu dropped out of fifth grade and left Bijie at the age of 14 looking for work in China’s major cities, like many young men in his village. Using savings from previous delivery contracts, he opened two fast food restaurants in Beijing. When they weren’t making a profit, he returned to delivery work, started blogging videos, and became involved in labor activism. He opened a cell phone accessory store in Beijing and ran a free shelter for other delivery people who were new to the city.

Chen Wanhua was informed by the police that he had been detained a month after his son disappeared. When friends and supporters raised money for Mengzhu’s legal fees, they were approached by state security agents. Amy Cheng / NPR hide caption

Toggle labeling

Amy Cheng / NPR

Chen Wanhua was informed by the police that he had been detained a month after his son disappeared. When friends and supporters raised money for Mengzhu’s legal fees, they were approached by state security agents.

Amy Cheng / NPR

The organization of deliverers is difficult, especially when it comes to the delivery of groceries. They are often freelance contractors or work for a loose confederation of third party services who then bid against each other to fulfill orders from larger ecommerce platforms. The challenges clearly frustrated Mengzhu, who spoke about his cohort on a Chinese podcast.

“To be honest, delivery workers are an uncivilized lot who are extremely short-sighted,” lamented Mengzhu on a Chinese podcast.

Still, he insisted. On Douyin he published videos almost every day in which he shared excerpts of his delivery routes and connected other “riders”, as the workers are called in Chinese, to their happiness. The goal, he said repeatedly, was to create a collective understanding among workers that they were facing common challenges.

“Delivery workers are humans too, not robots, even though the system aims to make us like cogs in a machine,” he told viewers last spring after a series of Chinese media investigations highlighted the sector’s demanding working conditions.

Mengzhu’s home village is home to around 200 families and is located in one of the poorest regions in China. Mengzhu left Bijie for work at the age of 14. The last time he was 10 years ago, says his father. Amy Cheng / NPR hide caption

Toggle labeling

Amy Cheng / NPR

Mengzhu’s home village is home to around 200 families and is located in one of the poorest regions in China. Mengzhu left Bijie for work at the age of 14. The last time he was 10 years ago, says his father.

Amy Cheng / NPR

Mengzhu’s social media accounts have been deleted since his arrest in February.

Despite its socialist roots, the Chinese state is extremely wary of collective action. The Communist Party-ruled system runs a state union, but the authorities have arrested dozens of work organizers in the past for trying to set up independent businesses.

In China, the Communist Party's youngest, unlikely target: young Marxists

Mengzhu was no stranger to such problems. In October 2019, he spent almost a month in detention for trying to organize a three-day strike among Beijing logistics workers before the big online shopping vacation on November 11th.

“They can do anything to arrest you, prosecute you, sentence you to years in prison and you will not change anything,” he said of his detention last September. “Other delivery workers still dare [to complain]? Well I dare. “

Amy Cheng contributed research from the Chinese province of Guizhou.

Comments are closed.