An unofficial labor group targeted in a recent crackdown by the ruling Chinese Communist Party in the southern province of Guangdong said on Monday it has joined another workers advocacy group in suing a journalist with the state-run news agency Xinhua for libel after their reporting of the arrest of their founders.
The Nanfeiyan Social Work Service Center in Guangdong's Foshan city said it, along with the Panyu Migrant Workers Center, has hired a libel lawyer and have sued Xinhua journalist Zou Weigong over a report accusing labor activists Zeng Feiyang and He Xiaobo of embezzlement and other misbehavior.
"Today, we were fortunately able to lodge our lawsuit by post withe Chancheng District People's Court of Foshan," the statement, signed by Nanfeiyan, said.
He's wife, who gave only her surname Yang, confirmed the report.
"We sent it off today by express mail," Yang said. "All I can tell you is that everything that is in that statement was in our lawsuit."
Zeng and He were formally arrested last month alongside more than a dozen fellow labor activists, some of whom were later released.
Trampling workers' rights?
He Xiaobo faces charges of "embezzlement," while Zeng, Zhu Xiaomei and Meng Han were formally arrested earlier this month for "gathering a crowd to disrupt public order."
State media has said Zeng, 41, and the others "seriously disrupted social order" and "trampled" workers rights by becoming involved in labor disputes.
Shortly after the activists' detentions, Xinhua reported that Zeng spent "most of" some U.S.$771,800 intended for the Panyu Migrant Workers Center for personal purposes, adding that he was expelled from high school for involvement in prostitution, a charge commonly used to discredit government critics.
"The article ... contains smears and serious factual errors,"
Nanfeiyan said in a statement carried on the Human Rights Campaign in China website.
"Nanfeiyan ... strongly demands that Xinhua reporter Zou Weigong apologize and sets the record straight," the Jan. 25 statement said.
A labor activist who asked to remain anonymous said Nanfeiyan is likely hoping to use the lawsuit to draw attention to the activists' plight.
"From our point of view, from the point of view of citizens, Nanfeiyan is suing to hit back at the hypocrisy of trial-by-media under the [ruling Chinese Communist Party's pledge to stick to the] rule of law," the activist said.
"They want to expose the use of trial-by-media that has always been carried out by Xinhua as a way of persecuting dissidents and rights activist," the activist said.
"Another thing is that they want the opportunity to tell the truth in more detail about these sorts of organizations; that what Xinhua writes isn't all true, neither is it the whole story."
"A lot of people still trust their reporting ... and it will be enormously helpful to those people who have been detained that Nanfeiyan is standing up and speaking out on their behalf," the activist said.
Earlier this month, Hong Kong-based rights website the China Labour Bulletin (CLB) said the labor activists had been subjected to "a vicious smear campaign" in state media.
Zeng had attended "hundreds of meetings" at which he coached workers in negotiating with management in disputes over pay and contractual benefits, it said.
Disputes on the rise
"[Zeng] was widely acknowledged as one of the most experienced and trustworthy labour activists in the Guangzhou region," the group said in an article, quoting workers who he had represented as vouching for his honesty in every way.
"In the last few years, the demand for his services had been increasing almost daily as China’s manufacturing industry slowed and hundreds of thousands of workers faced the prospect of being laid off without proper compensation or social security payments," the CLB said.
It said the number of labor disputes in the region has continued to rise since the detentions, and local government officials are struggling to resolve disputes in the absence of the NGO workers.
Last week, the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) hit out at "rampant human rights abuses" under the administration of President Xi Jinping, citing the crackdown on rights lawyers and labor groups as an example.
"President Xi’s shift toward a hard authoritarianism is disturbing and counterproductive and will have global implications," Congressman Chris Smith said in a press release on the commission's website on Friday.
"On his watch the courageous rights defense movement is under assault and brilliant lawyers are being cast as enemies of the state, [while] NGOs supporting all manner of causes to include labor rights, are hamstrung by a climate of fear," he said.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.