BEIJING: At least three prominent labor activists have been arrested in southern China, it was reported on Sunday, sparking concern the Communist party is ramping up a sweeping crackdown on rights groups.
Zeng Feiyang, director of labor rights group the Panyu Workers’ Center, and activist Zhu Xiaomei were both placed under criminal detention on Friday, Hong Kong-based non-governmental organisation China Labour Bulletin (CLB) reported.
CLB said Zhu Xiaomei has a one-year-old baby girl who has never been separated from her mother.
Another local activist, He Xiaobo, was detained earlier on Friday, CLB said. Chinese non-government organization Weiquanwang (Rights Defense Network) reported that He worked with an organization which helps workers suffering from occupational injuries.
He was accused of “misappropriation [of funds]as part of his duties,” reported Chinese business magazine Caijing.
Zeng has been helping workers in the southern province of Guangdong win payment of wages and unpaid benefits in disputes against employers.
Both Zeng and Zhu are accused of illegally “gathering a crowd to disturb social order,” according to Weiquanwang. Such charges are often invoked by the authorities against those it considers troublemakers.
Independent trade unions are banned in China, with only the official All-China Federation of Trade Unions legally recognized. However, critics say it often fails to assist workers in disputes.
“This campaign of arrests against groups of workers’ rights activists in Guangdong is unprecedented,” CLB spokesman Geoffrey Crothall told Agence France-Presse, adding it was “very alarming”.
“But the authorities will not solve any problems by putting these activists in jail. This will only aggravate the distress and discontent of workers,” he added.
The crackdown comes as Guangdong, one of China’s richest provinces, confronts growing economic challenges as many factories in the manufacturing hub of the Pearl River Delta close or relocate to cheaper Chinese provinces – or countries such as Vietnam where labor costs are lower.
Workers are often left with unpaid wages and no redundancy pay.
The detention of the three activists was part of a wider operation and the fate of four others – Peng Jiayong, Meng Han, Deng Xiaoming and Bei Guo – remains unknown, CLB reported.
One man taken in by the authorities, Huihai Chen – a lawyer leading an employee legal support network – told AFP on Sunday he had been detained by police but declined further comment, saying the matter “remained under judicial control.”
Since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2013, Beijing has taken a harder line towards rights groups. Xi has overseen a crackdown on dissent that has seen hundreds of lawyers, activists and academics detained in recent years, with dozens jailed.