Campaigners in Guangdong on Wednesday hit out at an official media "smear" campaign against five detained labor activists, saying that in standing up for workers' rights, they were trying to do the job that China's state-run trade union fails to do.
Earlier this month, authorities in Guangdong 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, prominent labor activist Zhu Xiaomei, as well as fellow activists He Xiaobo, Peng Xiayong and Deng Xiaoming remain in detention following a series of police raids on local NGOs in Guangdong this month.
In a political commentary earlier this week, the state news agency Xinhua said Zeng and the others had "seriously disrupted social order" and "trampled" workers rights by becoming involved in labor disputes.
It hinted that Zeng and his fellow activists had foreign backing and were actively working to sabotage negotiations between workers and management in a series of disputes that have swept the formerly booming region amid factory closures in the wake of a global economic slowdown.
"Workers' representatives believe that the real aim of Zeng Feiyang et al. was to incite workers to strike, creating a negative social impact, interfering with normal factory production and disturbing social order," the article said.
It accused the detainees of a long-term and "carefully planned program of sedition," suggesting that their activities were financed by overseas governments eager to sabotage the Chinese economy.
A source close to the detainees told RFA on Wednesday that the report is a smear campaign targeting the activists, who had facilitated workers' complaints during a number of major strikes in the province, including the Lide Shoe Factory dispute.
"The workers in the Lide dispute got rid of some of their representatives because they were telling them on the quiet that they should drop the dispute," the source said.
"That's when a lot of the striking workers started to suspect that they had been bought off."
He said allegations that Zeng had incited workers to strike were inaccurate.
"In fact, towards the end of the dispute, Zeng Feiyang was telling the workers they should go back to work sooner rather than later," the source said.
"Basically, what's written in that story is false and doesn't match the actual facts, and it's probably based on comments from the representatives who were dumped."
A second NGO source said the article's author, Zou Wei, was also credited with a similar article accusing rights lawyers of "trouble-making" in the wake of a nationwide operation that began with the detention of Beijing-based lawyer Wang Yu and her colleagues at the Fengrui law firm in the capital on the night of July 9.
"[I think the article indicates] that the operation against non-government groups in China in the past couple of years is continuing," the source said, citing the closure of Beijing-based Yirenping health rights group following a crackdown earlier in the year.
"I think they are trying to make everyone feel very scared. Our communications are being monitored, so it's probably not convenient for me to discuss this with you," the source said.
'He did nothing wrong'
A Guangdong-based labor activist surnamed Wu said Zeng had been trying to stand up for the rights of workers; something that should be the job of the state-backed All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU).
"The labor movement and Zeng Feiyang was doing what ACFTU should have done," Wu said. "He did nothing wrong."
"Of course the workers are going to get very excitable during any labor dispute, but actually I think that [his organization] actually helped them to make a rational analysis of the situation," he said.
"They showed them where management had broken the law, and how to challenge this."
According to the Hong Kong-based labor rights group China Labour Bulletin (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, had failed to represent workers in most cases, according to labor activists and CLB.
Instead, its role is increasingly being taken over by workers' "service centers," which offer free advice to workers in disputes with management.
While Zeng led the Panyu workers' service center, the Xinhua article also took aim at the Nanfeiyan service center, which it said had been instrumental in creating "divisions" in labor disputes in Guangzhou, Dongguan, Foshan, Zhongshan and other industrial areas in Guangdong province.
However, a former Nanfeiyan employee surnamed Yang said the two organizations were completely separate.
Reported by Ka Pa and Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.