Zhao Yushui, one of more than 10,000 fired workers protesting at the headquarters of China's biggest oil field, ground his cigarette into the dirt and glared at a propaganda slogan atop the office: "Be practical," it reads. "Sacrifice yourself." "I've sacrificed half my life for this company, only to be kicked aside now like trash," said Zhao, 54, who worked at China National Petroleum Corp until he was fired in November 2000 after a three-decade career at China's top oil producer.
Zhao's problem -- he can't support his family on his 130,500 yuan (US$15,766) severance payment -- is shared by many in Daqing, China's oil capital 1,000km northeast of Beijing. Three weeks of mostly peaceful protests represent some of China's biggest demonstrations since protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Its potential to escalate is alarming government officials.
"What's happening at Daqing is emblematic of a wider labor problem facing China," said Zhang Hanya, a researcher at the State Development Planning Commission. "If Beijing doesn't take labor unrest seriously, it may get out of hand." State companies that once guaranteed jobs, healthcare and housing for life have fired hundreds of thousands of workers during the past three years to boost efficiency. In rust belt cities like Daqing and Liaoyang, the cuts have fueled dissent among industrial and farm workers left behind by a decade of growth that widened a gap between rich and poor.
Protests are growing more frequent as state-owned companies such as CNPC, rival China Petrochemical Corp and Shanghai Baosteel Group fire workers to fend off increased foreign rivalry after China joined the WTO and promised to open markets. Three labor leaders were detained by police Wednesday in Liaoyang during a protest at a bankrupt metals plant.
Of the 25.5 million workers China fired from state-owned companies between 1998 and 2001, only two-thirds have found new jobs, said Li Rongrong, State Economic Trade Commission minister.
Last year, CNPC and China Petrochemical fired 600,000 employees.
While China's official urban jobless rate rose to 3.6 percent at the end of 2001 from 3.1 percent in 2000, the government admits unemployment is much higher. In the quarter ended September, there were 1.6 million people chasing 1.2 million jobs in China's 62 biggest cities, according to the Labor Ministry.
The problem is particularly acute in northeastern provinces of Heilongjiang, Liaoning and Jilin, which are home to many of China's biggest companies, such as the Daqing oil field, Jilin Chemical Industrial Co. and First Automotive Works.
Like Daqing, which pumps one in three barrels of China's oil, many of the towns rely almost entirely on a single industry. That means workers have few options when they are fired.
About 13 percent of Daqing's nearly 1.5 million residents are on the payroll of either CNPC or its New York-listed subsidiary PetroChina Co, both of which are headed by Ma Fucai, a former oil worker in the town. Most of the rest are dependents or work in subsidiary businesses such as the Daqing Oil University.
They can expect little sympathy from former employers.
"It's wrong to hold protests," said Na Zichun, a human resources manager with CNPC, who can see the protesters from his corner office in the Daqing Petroleum Administration building.