The case of the U.S.-educated Chen, who ran a microblog called "Heart Sanitation," illustrates how a brand of nonviolent labor activism that was once tolerated by Chinese authorities is now off-limits in a country facing stiff economic head winds and deepening political insecurity. "What he was doing would be seen as normal in China, even in the early years of the Xi Jinping administration," said Elaine Hui, a labor scholar at Pennsylvania State University who studied alongside Chen when he obtained a master's degree there in 2016. "Now, there is zero tolerance for dissent."
Chen's penalty was relatively light by China's standards. But he is probably the 140th worker, activist or student to be arrested or detained in the past 18 months, according to data kept by the China Labor Crackdown Concern Group, a coalition of Chinese and foreign activists and academics. The labor crackdown amounts to one of the largest campaigns to suppress civil society groups in China under Xi, the Chinese leader who has spoken this year about the risks facing the ruling Communist Party as it navigates rising unemployment and the most difficult economic conditions in decades.