Sanitation workers in China face many problems: unsafe working conditions, lack of social insurance, and overdue pay. The space and funding for individuals and NGOs working to defend these workers’ rights has become increasingly restricted.

On the evening of 17 December, 2019, Chen Weixiang, also known as Xiangzi, a labour rights activist, researcher and co-founder of WeChat channel Heart Sanitation (Xin Huanwei), an online platform advocating for workers’ rights, was taken from his home in Guangzhou by over a dozen police officers. At the same time, Xiao Zhang, a volunteer for Heart Sanitation, was taken and driven away in the same van. Another volunteer for the platform, Xiao Lu, has also gone missing.

All three activists are being held incommunicado and the charges under which they were taken and their whereabouts are unknown. A sanitation worker and six of his co-workers who were in close contact with the group have been told by their work supervisor that they would also be questioned.

Chen Weixiang has initiated a number of campaigns for workers’ rights since 2011, while he was an undergraduate at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, including using the Open Government Information regulations and performance art. Due to his activism the university threatened to fail him and a hospital, where he was due to work, revoked his employment contract. 

In 2017, Chen studied for a Master’s degree in labour studies at Penn State University and while there he set up a number of online support groups for sanitation workers including the Heart Sanitation online platform. Since its launch, the platform has improved the welfare of sanitation workers in Guangzhou; advocating for their rights, including recovering overdue wages from their employers.