China's state media has played a central role in a nationwide crackdown on dissidents, broadcasting televised confessions and printing lengthy exposé-style accounts to accuse detained lawyers and activists of unsavoury and criminal behaviour.
Now a small labour-rights organization in southern China is fighting back. On Monday, it submitted a lawsuit against journalists at Xinhua, the country's central state news agency, saying their reporting constituted character assassination.
The suit marks a novel, and difficult, attempt in China to legally challenge state media for its part in publicly prosecuting people Chinese authorities accuse of crimes against the state.
What Xinhua wrote "has spread crazily across the news and media, seriously damaged our organization's public image and trampled our reputation," the Foshan Nanfeiyan Social Work Service Centre wrote in a statement posted to Chinese social media Monday. The centre's manager, He Xiaobo, was detained Dec. 4 for alleged embezzlement.
Around the same time, six other labour-rights workers were also detained as part of a dragnet that has dealt a severe blow to activists who want to help China's vast population of poor factory employees secure injury compensation, pensions and fair wages.
On Dec. 22, Xinhua published a lengthy article that enumerated the "serious crimes" Chinese authorities accused them of committing.
The article promised to "uncover the truth" and portrayed the activists as moral delinquents whose work undermined state security. Zeng Feiyang, the most high-profile of those detained, had "at least eight long-term lovers" and used the Internet to send lewd messages and videos to women, Xinhua said.
The real motive for Mr. Zeng, Mr. He and the other activists was "to incite workers to strike, create a social impact, interfere with factories' normal production and disturb social order," Xinhua reported. It said the labour activists "forced factories' leaders into submission and incited workers to surround law-enforcement agencies, causing a very bad impact on society."
Mr. Zeng and two others were later formally arrested for "gathering a crowd to disrupt public order." Two were released on bail; the status of another remains unknown.
Mr. He was charged with embezzlement. He began to fight for the rights of injured workers after losing three fingers in an industrial accident in 2006. Nanfeiyan says it has helped nearly 10,000 injured workers obtain compensation.
On Monday, the organization said it was submitting its defamation suit to "defend our own reputation" even as it continues to "defend the rights of workers who suffer injuries."
Cheng Zhunqiang, Mr. Zeng's lawyer, said in December the Xinhua article constituted an attack reminiscent of China's dark days. It would be better for "the charges made by a country against a citizen to be in the courts, rather than handling them in the manner of 'Cultural Revolution' posters," Mr. Cheng told Reuters. During the tumultuous Mao Zedong-led campaign from 1966 to 1976, people hung "big-character posters" to publicly denounce political adversaries.
Reached by telephone Monday, Mr. Cheng said authorities had ordered him to stop speaking to foreign media. Another lawyer working with the detained labour activists similarly said he was unable to talk. A Chinese social-media post about the Nanfeiyan defamation suit was deleted hours after it was posted.
China's slowing economy has led to rising worker unrest. Last year, as corporate profits narrowed and some factories suddenly shut down, the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin tracked 2,774 strikes and labour protests, more than double the number in 2014. Many occurred in Guangdong, the province whose manufacturing-heavy Pearl River Delta has been called the "world's factory."
Falling exports, rising labour competition from neighbouring countries and souring Chinese economic prospects have created new strife and "exposed the inability of local governments to manage labour relations," said Geoffrey Crothall, a spokesman for China Labour Bulletin, which works for Chinese workers' rights. "And unfortunately the only way the Communist Party and the government know how to respond is to crack down on the people who are actually trying to help."
The crackdown has also ensnared hundreds of human-rights lawyers and foreign-aid workers. China's state media "have been incredibly unfair in their portrayal of the labour activists and the NGOs," William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International, said.
"It is a striking new way in which the media is being used in going after any government critics."
Defamation suits are not uncommon in China, but are often used by authorities to silence critics and whistleblowers. Chinese law allows criminal defamation charges and arrest in cases where "serious harm is done to public order or the interests of the state."
But "I don't know if there's any precedent" for a civil-defamation case against a state organ, said Joshua Rosenzweig, an independent human-rights researcher in Hong Kong. It would be "practically impossible" for it to succeed in court.
"But at the very least, they can use this lawsuit to try to raise awareness," he said, "and to try to mobilize public opinion in opposition to the way that the media is being used in China to tarnish people's reputations and to pass judgment before a case ever goes to trial."