SHENYANG, China — For more than 40 years, Zhou Wei found success as a Communist Party cadre, the kind of loyal official whose hard work kept the gears of China's socialist industry turning. Colleagues say he was a brilliant, if prickly, man who loved — and still loves — the party.
But today he is in a labor camp, accused of organizing illegal assemblies and inciting unrest in this depressed industrial city. Since the mid-1990s, Zhou, 69, has led thousands of revered old cadres in protests and petition campaigns against the government, decrying corruption and failure to look after farmers, workers and retirees.
Now, a campaign to gain Zhou's release has brought into public view an extraordinary struggle between the party and its most senior officials — a bizarre conflict in which police tail old men who are heroes of the revolution that brought the party to power.
But more than that, it reflects widespread disillusionment with the Communist Party over corruption and lost ideals. And it demonstrates the erosion of its credibility and its monopoly on power as citizens increasingly speak their minds.
Here, protests by workers demanding unpaid wages are so common that road blockages are announced on the news. But complaints of veteran cadres go deeper.
"We old cadres were outraged by the arrest of Comrade Zhou Wei," said Zhang Jingcai, 70.
Zhou began organizing protests in 1995, for intensely practical reasons: The Shenyang government had stopped providing the city's 20,000 old cadres with their legally guaranteed retirement benefits. Party stalwarts found themselves without full pensions or medical coverage while some local party leaders were building villas and driving Audis.
The cadres rebelled, and Zhou was a leader.
A 1998 order stripping Zhou of his party membership says he organized 119 trips to petition the government, involving 17,000 people.
But perhaps most threatening was the cadres' decision to investigate corruption. And as their efforts intensified, so did police harassment.
In May 1998, Zhou and his group went to Beijing to charge that Shenyang's deputy mayor, Ma Xiangdong, was involved in a land speculation scheme that had illegally seized property that belonged to thousands of peasants. On his return, Zhou was detained for two weeks and expelled from the party.
Ma is now in prison, awaiting trial.
Then, on May 6, five police cars with more than 20 officers pulled up in front of Zhou's apartment and arrested him, his family said.