In one of his last interviews before he was detained by Chinese police, Meng Han appeared relaxed as he talked about his work as a labour activist.

“Our most important work is to help factory workers organise themselves so they can defend their rights,” he told the Financial Times last year. “The government rarely helps the workers. But as long as the workers don’t go to extremes, it will stay neutral.”

At the beginning of 2015, Mr Meng could feel reasonably confident that he inhabited, in the context of China’s rapidly evolving civil society, a relatively safe sphere. Labour activists, rights lawyers and academics believed that, so long as they did not challenge the ruling Communist party, they could operate without fear of official retribution.

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