epa00603927 A fight broke out between 50 to 60 rural migrant workers and management staff of the construction company when the migrant workers turned off the electricity switch after they failed to collect their unpaid wages at the construction site in Haikou, south China's Hainan province, Wednesday 28 December 2005. Five from both sides were badly injured in the battle. Migrant workers always seek to recover their unpaid wages during the period immediately before the Spring festival. Most of them rely heavily on their earnings to spend during the festival. EPA/STR
A fight breaks out at a construction site in Haikou between workers and management after the workers failed to receive unpaid wages © EPA

China has detained student organisers and factory workers in at least three cities as a crackdown against labour protests spreads across the country.

Security forces stormed student and worker dormitories in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen on Friday night, according to student activists, taking away five university students, three workers in Guangdong province, as well as several employees at a Shenzhen-based labour rights organisation.

The arrests come after nearly 40 leftist student activists, many of them graduates of China’s most selective universities, were arrested earlier this summer after trying to help workers trying to unionise at a Jasic Technology factory in Shenzhen. 

“At least five men in black clothing . . . came at me like a flood,” wrote Yu Tianfu, a student from Beijing’s prestigious Peking University, describing the most recent wave of arrests last week. 

In the melee, Mr Yu said he was thrown to the ground, kicked and his glasses smashed, while a classmate, Zhang Shengye, was taken away: “Next was the sound of a door slamming, and I saw a classmate being forced into their car.”

In July, about 30 workers from Jasic Technology were detained, the biggest wave of arrests of workers since 2015. In August, police in riot gear raided a student dormitory and took away about 40 students who had been supporting the workers, according to witnesses, including Yue Xin, a recent graduate of Peking University and a lead organiser in China’s #MeToo movement, who remains incommunicado.

The string of arrests is one of China’s most systematic since a sweep of about 250 human rights lawyers three years ago. Since then, many of the lawyers have been formally charged and imprisoned for subversion.

The Guangdong, Shanghai and Beijing public security departments did not respond to calls for comment.

The rise in student activism, co-ordinated across multiple rights groups and university campuses, has prompted a harsh reaction from Chinese authorities, who have kept a tight leash on student groups and university campuses since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.

“Students at elite universities are always going to be an issue of concern to the authorities. Think back to 1989; it was students marching at universities who were most active in the [Tiananmen Square] protests,” said Geoffrey Crothall of China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based campaign group. “The authorities are clearly very concerned that this thing will continue to spread.”

Additional reporting from Nicolle Liu in Hong Kong, and Archie Zhang and Nian Liu in Beijing

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