Prominent southern China labor activist avoids jail

September 26, 2016 8:53 AM EDT

Zeng Feiyang, director of the Guangdong Panyu Migrant Workers Center, talks on his phone during an interview in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, January 20, 2015. REUTERS/Alexandra Harney

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HONG KONG (Reuters) - A Chinese court handed down a three-year suspended jail sentence for a prominent labor activist based in the southern city of Guangzhou on Monday, while two other defendants were given 18-month suspended sentences, a lawyer and rights group said.

Zeng Feiyang, director of the Panyu Migrant Workers Center in the city, had been detained for "disturbing social order" in December as part of a crackdown on labor rights defenders in southern China, home to tens of thousands of factories.

Rights groups say the current clampdown on dissent is the most sweeping in two decades in China, where a slowing economy has led to a surge in labor disputes, particularly in the southern manufacturing powerhouse of Guangdong province, of which Guangzhou is the capital.

"Under the current environment, it is a relatively good result," said human rights lawyer Chen Xuejin who formerly represented Zeng and who had been in touch with Zeng's lawyer.

"(But) if they want to continue their labor activism or do anything that the government doesn't like, they may be thrown to jail immediately."

Zeng's lawyer wasn't reachable for comment and calls to the People's court in Panyu went unanswered.

Zeng is one of China's most prominent labor activists, many of whom have campaigned for the legal rights of workers, such as proper work contracts and social insurance contributions.

Xinhua state news agency said in December that "workers' representatives" believed his real motive was to "incite workers to strike, create a social impact, interfere with factories' normal production and disturb social order".

Zeng and other activists "forced factories' leaders into submission and incited workers to surround law enforcement agencies, causing a very bad impact on society," Xinhua said.

Despite the seemingly lenient sentences, Chen said their rights work would likely be curtailed in the short term.

"This will be like a restraining curse restricting what they can do. For example if they want to continue their labor activism or do anything that the government doesn't like, they may be thrown into jail immediately," said Chen.

William Nee, a China researcher at rights group Amnesty International, said the targeting of Zeng and others could backfire with labor disputes on the rise as China's economy slows and as factory bosses try to cut costs.

"The government will still have a big problem at hand regardless of whether the Panyu Migrant Workers' Center exists," Nee said. "They can't ignore the workers' grievances, especially because in the vast majority of cases what the workers are demanding, they have 100 percent right to demand."

(Reporting by Venus Wu and James Pomfret; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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