It was a dramatic crackdown, even by China's standards: Dozens of young labor organizers and student activists were rounded up and disappeared in 2018 and 2019. Now, at least 15 of the activists have been released from detention, some taking on new identities and jobs, according to five acquaintances of the activists.
The acquaintances, who spoke to NPR on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation by authorities, say the activists were released only after they agreed to abandon their activism. They allege that the activists had been held in apartments where family members, former teachers and classmates made emotional entreaties — or criticisms — designed to persuade the activists to give up their advocacy work.
Chinese authorities have long detained, jailed and even tortured activists and political dissidents. The treatment of the labor organizers and student activists in southern China illustrates how the government has turned to a subtler tactic. It involves leveraging personal relationships and financial incentives to coerce those the government considers politically subversive.
"The threat is if they say anything or leave their jobs, then everyone they care about — their family members, former activists, acquaintances — will encounter trouble," said an acquaintance of one of the activists who has been given a job by the state.
The acquaintance recently met with one of the activists and says the activist appeared to be in good health and showed no sign of physical torture. The activist is believed to be undergoing little surveillance other than occasional visits from security officials. However, the activist is visibly depressed from months of psychological manipulation and interrogation.
The two activists given job placements had been detained in 2018 and early 2019 for their involvement in a unionization effort of workers at the Jasic Technology welding factory in the southern city of Shenzhen.
As many as 80 workers' rights activists were detained over the course of 2018 and 2019, advocacy groups say. About half of those detained were labor organizers who had gone to Huizhou, a city neighboring Shenzhen, to unionize the welding plant. The unionization effort, called the Jasic Workers Support Group, was eventually shut down by both the company and local officials.
The remainder of those detained were members of Marxist student associations at several universities, including Beijing's prestigious Peking University. Intensely devoted to putting into action Maoist ideals of socialism and equality, members of these associations recalled undergoing punishing job assignments in factories, where they worked shoulder to shoulder with other migrant workers to better understand the torments of China's lower classes. They held evening film screenings to discuss labor rights and campaigned to stop sexual harassment on campus and to improve workers' conditions.
But analysts say the students' commitment to social justice posed a threat to the legitimacy of China's ruling Communist Party, which since the late 1970s has introduced reforms that unleashed economic growth but also extreme inequality. The state does not tolerate criticism of its policies and considers any form of collective organizing, including independent union work, politically dangerous.
"Especially given that [Chinese leader] Xi Jinping has reasserted the role of Marxism in education and official ideology, the state wants to keep a very tight grip on defining the terms of the debate," said Eli Friedman, an expert on labor in China at Cornell University.
Friedman explains the activists' union work highlighted deficiencies where the Chinese Communist Party has not upheld its own socialist commitments: "Students trying to organize with workers, while aggressively framing the struggle in Marxist political terms, poses a real threat to ideological monopoly," he says.
Many of the activists and students arrested throughout 2018 and 2019 were eventually released. Some even returned to Peking University, where a handful are still finishing their degrees, according to a former member of the now-disbanded Marxist Studies Society. The former society member did not want to be named for fear of further retaliation by the state.
But some activists were detained for more than a year in unknown circumstances. Last January, police showed some Peking University students videos of missing student activists where they confessed to working for an "illegal organization" and for "creating a negative impact on society."
Fellow activists said the videos were forced confessions made under duress. Rights groups say Chinese authorities routinely pressure activists in detention, where they can extract forced confessions on tape, and often publicly broadcast them.
Aiding security officials in shutting down the Jasic unionization effort was a legal power approved in 2012, which allows them to indefinitely detain suspects in national security cases under "residential surveillance at a designated location" — a form of house arrest where the location of the person is kept secret.
While under house arrest, some of the detained activists were subjected to intense pressure to give up their activism, say two acquaintances who spoke to NPR.
According to the acquaintance of a released activist, officials told the activist "a comrade they had worked with and deeply admired was actually a demagogue trying to manipulate them for his personal political ambitions."
An alleged written confession from this "demagogue" was presented to the activist as evidence, said the acquaintance. NPR could not ascertain whether this confession was written voluntarily.
Another former Jasic activist alleged to another acquaintance that Chinese state agents brought in the activist's mother, professors they had admired and former high school teachers while they were held in residential surveillance. Each person implored the activist, through guilt and shame, to give up their work.
"They told me I had achieved nothing in my activism other than hurt workers and my fellow comrades," the former activist told NPR through an acquaintance. "They also told me that since I did not resolutely resist appearing in the confession video, my public reputation was completely damaged and people would not respect or listen to me anymore if I speak up for my cause again in the future."
Earlier this year, the former activist was released and given a state job under a pseudonym at a salary they described as "above average." They have made no attempt to contact their former activist circles since being released.