Fang Ran: the haunting case of the Hong Kong labour rights researcher held in China
(South China Morning Post) On September 11, South China Morning Post reported the following story of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) authorities detaining Fang Ran, HKU doctorial student / labor rights researcher for “trying to overturn the State.”
Fang Ran was not alarmed when his belongings, including his phone, computer and ID card, were confiscated by state security agents in southern China in June.
The 26-year-old doctoral student at the University of Hong Kong was a Communist Party member and had often been “invited to tea,” a euphemism for informal questioning, by security personnel.
Fang’s research on the labour movement in China put him on the radar of agencies from his hometown of Nanning in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region and he was used to the “soft interrogations”, which could last up to a day or two, according to two of his friends.
This time seemed no different, friend Abner said. The Nanning agents returned Fang’s identity card and he carried on with his research. In late August, the agents told Fang to return to Nanning to pick up his computer and phone, said Abner, who declined to give his real name.
Then everything changed.
A week later, Fang’s father posted a desperate plea on social media for his son to be freed. He said Fang had been accused of state subversion and put under a form of detention called residential surveillance on August 26. No one has heard from Fang since.
His detention has sent a chill through the labour rights community in Hong Kong, with few willing to comment and many wondering how one student could be accused of trying to overturn the state.
Fang has long had an interest in social and political issues.
As a high school student in Nanning, Fang was the head of his school’s Launching Satellites Society, whose members were expected to “be brave, change society, push forward history” and “train their abilities to analyse and solve social problems”, according to a post he wrote on the Baidu Tieba social media platform when he was 16.
The society held seminars on social issues, published essays in their magazine and investigated social issues.
His work as the student society’s president helped him get into the top-tier Tsinghua University in Beijing to study sociology, according to EOL.cn, an education industry website in China.
Carl, a friend from his days as an undergraduate at Tsinghua, said Fang joined the party in his late teens because he thought the party was fighting for a classless society.
“He might have thought the Chinese Communist Party represented the work towards equality and liberation,” said Carl, who declined to give his full name.
While at Tsinghua, Fang became one of the founders of the Research Association of Political Economics and Modern Capitalism, a small leftist student activist and study group, which Carl also joined.
Fang and Carl had similar views on current affairs and history and believed Marxism could be used to analyse history and power relationships in society to help what they saw as the oppressed – labourers and minority groups. It was a brand of Marxism not taught in Chinese textbooks, Carl said.
Fang went on to work as an intern at an NGO and social media sites focusing on labour relations.
In 2018, he became a full-time doctoral student at HKU’s sociology department, focusing on “labour empowerment” in mainland China, according to his university profile.
It is not known what his thesis topic is but his earlier research focused on migrant labourers from Hunan province who developed black lung while working in Shenzhen, according to his friends. He recorded the lives of the workers, lived with them and worked at factories in Shenzhen, Guangzhou and other areas in southern China.
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