In an unprecedented crackdown on some of China’s most effective independent labor organizations, known as worker centers, seven worker-activists have been detained and held virtually incommunicado in detention facilities in Foshan and Guangzhou.
The detainees include Panyu Dagongzu Service Center staffers Zeng Feiyang and Zhu Xiaomei; former Dagongzu staffers Tang Jian (a k a Beiguo) and Meng Han; Peng Jiayong of the Panyu-based Laborer Mutual Aid Group; He Xiaobo, director of Foshan Nanfeiyan Social Work Services Organization; and Deng Xiaoming of the Haige Workers Center. Beiguo reportedly remains detained, but his whereabouts are unconfirmed as of December 16.
The activists are reportedly being detained on grounds of “endangering national security,” according to Amnesty International. It is unclear whether charges have been formally brought; earlier reports indicated Zeng and Zhu had been apprehended on lesser charges of “disrupting social order,” and He charged with “embezzlement.” Attorneys, restricted from communicating with them, have demanded clarification on the charges. The national-security charges, Amnesty reports, “could lead to a sentence of up to 15 years imprisonment.”
Advocates report that He and Zhu’s lawyers, along with detainees’ family members, have been arbitrarily barred from visiting. And Zhu, a former migrant worker from Henan turned organizer, has been denied bail and is unable to reunite with the baby she is nursing. Authorities have also reportedly questioned and harassed dozens of relatives and affiliates of the detainees and their groups.
While the government remains mum on the detentions, the police sweep seems an unusually harsh crackdown on community-based groups that have long struggled to balance mutual aid and advocacy without courting controversy. Working outside the international spotlight and concentrated in China’s gritty southern manufacturing belt, organizers toil thanklessly each day on behalf of local workers: filing complaints, winning back wages, fostering collective bargaining, and occasionally mediating strikes and other workplace conflicts.