Authorities in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong have detained five labor activists, two of them formally on suspicion of "gathering a crowd to disrupt public order' amid an ongoing crackdown on non-government groups, especially those involved in the country's nascent but unofficial labor movement.
Zeng Feiyang, who directs the Panyu Workers' Center near the provincial capital Guangzhou, and prominent labor activist Zhu Xiaomei were detained late on Friday, while fellow activists He Xiaobo, Peng Xiayong and Deng Xiaoming remain in detention following a series of police raids on local NGOs.
According to the Hong Kong-based group China Labour Bulletin (CLB), Zhu Xiaomei, who was instrumental in organizing strike action at the Lide Shoe Factory and among university sanitation workers, has a one-year-old baby girl who has never been separated from her mother.
While several activists were detained for questioning and later released, at least four others were incommunicado on Monday, CLB said in an article on its website.
A source close to Deng and Peng confirmed their detentions, and the unknown status of two others.
"I haven't seen a copy of a notification yet, and the police station won't tell me what is in the letter to the families, but everyone is assuming that they are being criminally detained," the source said.
"There are two others who are unaccounted for: Meng Han and Yang Jianxian," the source said. "We haven't had any news of them at all."
He said there was an "80-90 percent" likelihood that Meng and Yang would also be criminally detained.
"Last year, both of them worked in Zeng Feiyang's labor service center for a year, and they were very important employees there," the source said.
"They are probably in the same situation as Zhu Xiaomei."
Among those detained and then released was labor activist Chen Huihai, director of the Guangdong-based labor NGO Haige Labor Service Center.
Chen told RFA in an interview last week shortly before his detention that the authorities had imposed a travel ban on him amid the ongoing NGO crackdown.
"They are casting their net very wide, and detaining everyone," Chen said. "Staff working at all four of my offices have been placed under surveillance or house arrest."
"I am currently hiding in a hotel, but I don't think I can do that for much longer, because of the surveillance technology they have," he said.
"I just got a clear notification from them, saying they want to detain me, and that I wouldn't be allowed to leave the country."
"They are targeting the labor movement."
Passive official union
According to CLB, all of the activists had played a crucial role in the workers’ movement in the region.
"By arresting them or preventing them from doing their job, the local authorities will only aggravate tensions in the Pearl River Delta as more and more factories close down and workers demand proper compensation," it said.
It said the activists had been trying to reduce social tensions rather than stir them up.
"The labor activists ... played a vital role in helping workers resolve their disputes with their employers through collective bargaining, thereby reducing social tension," it said.
An employee who answered the phone at the Fuhua police station in Guangzhou, where Deng is reportedly being held, didn't deny he was being held there.
Asked about police plans to issue formal notification of Deng's detention to his family, the employee said: "We rely on the postal service in this matter, so I'm not sure when it will get sent."
"But you will have to come to the police station ... It's not convenient for me to tell you over the phone."
According to CLB, strikes and labor-related protests in Guangdong doubled last month to 56 incidents in November, compared with just 23 in July.
The All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), which has the backing of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, has failed to represent workers in most cases, according to labor activists and CLB.
"The official trade union ... has for the most part, simply stood by, unable to intervene or assist the workers in any way," CLB said.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.