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China Detains Delivery Worker Who Tried To Improve Working Conditions

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

You could think of 2020 as the year of the delivery worker. Delivery workers helped millions of Americans stay safer during the pandemic, and in China, they fed hundreds of millions of people who were in quarantine. One delivery worker in China tried to improve working conditions, and now he's in detention, as NPR's Beijing correspondent Emily Feng reports.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: China has 3 million delivery workers, and they are everywhere. Outside every apartment complex and office building, you see them with their bright windproof jackets and scooters.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

(SOUNDBITE OF STREET AMBIENCE)

FENG: Chen Guojiang - or Mengzhu (ph), as he is popularly known - was one of them. He worked all sorts of jobs in Beijing food delivery, package delivery and wholesale logistics. But he also made short videos about life as a delivery worker. He put them on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MENGZHU: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: He says in this video, "Delivery workers are people, not robots. But delivery platforms treat us like cogs in the machine." So he tried to organize delivery workers, one of China's fastest-growing groups of gig workers. Here he is in a podcast interview last September about how he was detained for a month for trying to set up a strike.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MENGZHU: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: He says, "They can do everything to arrest you, fix you with a criminal charge, sentence you to years in prison, and you change nothing. So do other delivery workers still dare to complain? Well, I dare." And then as big annual political meetings kicked off in Beijing this February, he simply disappeared.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: So NPR went looking for answers. That search took us to remote Bijie prefecture, in China's southwest, infamous for being one of the poorest places in the country.

(Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: (Non-English language spoken).

There, in a village tucked amid lush green mountains, we found Mengzhu's father, Chen Wanhua, in a small concrete house amid fields of corn. The elder Chen visibly tears up when we ask him about his son.

CHEN WANHUA: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: He says, "My son's disappeared. I haven't been able to reach him by phone." He then brings out a police notice.

CHEN: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: He tells us that three officers from Beijing came all the way to Bijie to give him a notice saying his son was detained for, quote, "picking quarrels and provoking troubles." That's a catchall crime commonly used to detain both petty criminals and political activists. But Mengzhu's case is being handled with high-level secrecy.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: When Mengzhu's friends raised nearly $20,000 USD to cover lawyer fees, China's state security quickly contacted them, warning them not to help Mengzhu. Eli Friedman is a professor at Cornell University who studies labor activism in China. He says Mengzhu tread into dangerous political territory by effectively acting as a union organizer.

ELI FRIEDMAN: That is a red line for the Chinese government. They cannot accept an independent trade union, or anything that coheres collective power for workers is seen as a threat to state power.

FENG: That also put Mengzhu up against powerful companies and local economic interests. Delivering goods, like food, equals about 1 whole percent of China's total economic activity. Its biggest multibillion-dollar tech companies rely on or run their own delivery platforms. China was once the world's factory; now it's turning to e-commerce and services.

FRIEDMAN: And so the government has been betting on an expansion of employment in the service sector. So the conditions for workers are really quite significant. If they're pinning their hopes on sectors like this, you know, gig work to absorb a lot of the surplus labor, then it's - you know, it's really significant what kinds of jobs are being created there.

FENG: Mengzhu epitomized this economic shift. For decades, able-bodied men in the poor countryside worked in factories or construction. Mengzhu escaped by working in delivery.

CHEN: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: Chen, the father, tells us Mengzhu's mother abandoned the family when he was a child.

CHEN: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: But he says Mengzhu was clearly gifted, despite dropping out in fifth grade. His father remembers how, when he went to the market, it was his son who knew how to write all the names of obscure plants and vegetables. That life is now far behind Mengzhu. He left the village at age 14. Now he faces a sentence of up to five years in prison. Chen now waits among Bijie's rolling, isolating mountains. He's hoping for news of his son, who, like so many young men, left the village for Beijing but never came back.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Guizhou province, China. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.