Mr Wu describes his 371 days in detention as “a kind of hell” in which he was held in a small room with as many as 50 other people. His trial in Shenzhen was attended by activists from across the country. Adding to the case’s sensitivity, strikes at multinational employers such as Walmart and IBM erupted while Mr Wu’s verdict was being deliberated in the spring of 2014. The Walmart dispute also involved demands for higher compensation after the closure of an outlet in Changde, Hunan province.
Labour activists thought they detected the invisible hand of the Communist party’s Politics and Law Committee, whose branches extend all the way down to county level, in the court’s ultimate decision to throw out Mr Wu’s case and award him compensation of Rmb74,455.99 ($12,000). He has since used the money to establish his own labour rights group in Shenzhen.
The Walmart case has degenerated into a year-long stand-off, with all arbitration and court rulings going against the workers. Of the closed store’s 140 original employees, all but nine have given up and accepted compensation.
Local officials barred the Financial Times from attending the latest hearing on March 26, and State Security Bureau agents briefly held two activists who travelled to Changde for the proceedings. “Many people who had wanted to come for the hearing, including lawyers and scholars, were told not to,” says Cheng Huihai, one of the activists.
It was not Mr Cheng’s first such experience with the party’s legal and security apparatus. “The Politics and Law Committee knows everything about me,” he says candidly. “They even knew who had invited me for dinner. It was as if they had been sitting at our table.”
Like most petitioners, Mr Zhang is not on the radar screens of organs as powerful as the State Security Bureau and Politics and Law Committee. He has been regarded as more of a local nuisance — albeit a surprisingly persistent and effective one. In April the 52-year-old former construction foreman, who has worked on sites as far away as southern Hainan island, reached a provisional settlement with Foxconn.
Since 2011 Foxconn has paid for most of Tingzhen’s medical bills, which can run as high as Rmb20,000 a month. But it also repeatedly sparred with his family over the location and duration of his care according to Mr Zhang, who along with his wife moved 1,600km from their home in central Henan province to tend to their son.
Mr Zhang says Foxconn wanted Tingzhen to be treated in another city where wages — and therefore compensation standards — are lower.
Foxconn declined to comment on Tingzhen’s case for confidentiality reasons, but said the settlement agreement reached with the Zhangs would “ensure [Tingzhen] has the long-term support he will require” and was “consistent with the strong commitment to [Tingzhen] and his family that we have maintained since his tragic accident”.
After losing a series of costly court and arbitration challenges, in 2013 Mr Zhang turned to the lowest rung in China’s justice system — he became a full-time petitioner and made multiple visits to Beijing. While in the capital he sought — and was refused — hearings with authorities ranging from the State Bureau of Letters and Calls, which administers the modern day version of the imperial petitioning system, to the Communist party’s anti-graft office.
Mr Zhang would arrive in the capital by train or bus. Often penniless, he slept rough near Beijing’s South Railway Station or would share a cheap room with other petitioners. But he was able to sell both his literacy and his growing legal knowledge. “When times were really difficult and I didn’t have any money, I would write letters for other petitioners in exchange for a meal,” he says.
On his most recent trip in November, Mr Zhang was picked up by police after attempting to bring attention to his son’s plight in a resort area where global leaders including US President Barack Obama were gathering for their annual Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation summit and later in Tiananmen Square.
As an officially registered “temporary resident” of Shenzhen, Mr Zhang was deemed the responsibility of the Shenzhen government. It dispatched three policemen to escort him on a flight back to the southern manufacturing centre. It was the first time in his life that Mr Zhang had flown on a plane.
Upon leaving the airport terminal in Shenzhen, Mr Zhang fled from his police escort. “One of them chased me for about a kilometre but then gave up,” says Mr Zhang. He was not, however, subsequently detained. Instead, both police and the petitioning office in the Shenzhen district where Tingzhen was injured helped facilitate Mr Zhang’s successful settlement talks with Foxconn.
When his settlement with Foxconn is finalised, Mr Zhang intends to take Tingzhen back to Henan.
“For more than three years I haven’t been able to do anything else,” he says. “I spend my days petitioning and my nights reading and writing about the law. When this is done, I will continue to study labour law. I would like to be a lawyer.”