Fri, Feb 18, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Worker protests in China - plentiful but preempted?

Officials seem prepared to tolerate small-scale marches and sit-ins by peasants and workers, as long as the demonstrations appear to be spontaneous, disorganized, localized and leaderless

By Dorothy Solinger

ILLUSTRATION: YUSHA

The last annualized figure for labor protests that the Chinese state was willing to announce publicly was 100,000 for the year 1999. But a 2001 internal report from the Ministry of Public Security disclosed that the num-bers "began a rise like a violent wind" from 1997, the year of the Communist Party's 15th Congress, which pressed for factory firings in the name of "efficiency."

While the government is determined to keep news of all disturbances out of the media -- or at least to downplay their size and disruptiveness -- it has nonetheless been possible to collect information on nearly 200 separate events between 1994 and last year from the many thousands of unreported events that actually took place. Some of these reports are from news sources in Hong Kong, a few are from Chinese publications and some come from the Western media.

These reports all exhibit a widespread increase of the same, unchanging pattern: the government, whether in Beijing or in the localities, generally tolerates the low-decibel, smaller-scale, relatively non-disruptive marches and sit-ins by peasants and workers with petitions or posters. It is especially indulgent if demonstrators appear to be spontaneous, disorganized, localized and leaderless.

The political elite is less tolerant of disturbances that seem to have been mobilized by dissidents, are marked by some measure of violence, evince a measure or organization, threaten to spread, or entail the obstruction of major transport trunk lines. Indeed, the few episodes that make it into the media beyond China usually involve such protests as railway lay-ins or blockages of major urban thoroughfares, assaults on and clashes with authorities, detentions and arrests.

What is sparking so much unrest in a country that is usually depicted as daily growing more affluent and which places such high emphasis on "stability?" The causes are: unpaid wages and pensions, sudden and massive job terminations, corrupt officials held responsible for the bankruptcy of some industrial enterprises and an end to most socialist privileges and benefits, guaranteed since the earliest days of the Communist regime in the 1950s.

Indeed, at the same time many Chinese are getting wealthier, job loss has led directly to impoverishment for approximately an eighth of many major cities' officially registered residents.

In the interest of undoing what post-Mao Zedong (毛澤東) leaders came to view as the excesses and waste of the socialist, planned economy, some 60 million state-owned enterprise (SOE) employees have been summarily sacked since the early 1990s, as their factories failed -- from lack of state-of-the-art technology and equipment, poor management or embezzlement, hefty social welfare bills, or competition from more modern or less costly non-state plants both in China and abroad.

Having no really dependable channels for airing grievances, mobs of laid-off workers and people forced to "retire" (or xiagang, on partial pensions) have been increasingly challenging authorities over the past decade.

Doesn't this self-proclaimed "people's" government mind if so much of its urban populace is sinking into poverty and becoming disaffected? And why is this stability-obsessed regime allowing so much instability?

The truth is that while party leaders are terribly uneasy about the situation and discuss it frequently, there is a limit to what they can do within the confines of China's transition between systems.

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