Dozens of Chinese police blocked angry vendors from the entrance of Beijing's famous Silk Alley market yesterday in a standoff over its closure after 20 years of bustling business selling fake designer ware.
Protests are rare in China, where the Communist leadership is keen to maintain stability amid rapid economic and social change, but neighborhood demolitions and arguments over compensation have been a flashpoint for confrontation with authorities.
At least six vendors climbed on to the snow-covered roof of the market to protest against their eviction, shivering in the sub-zero temperatures as crowds gathered to watch police in a fire-truck ladder try to talk them down.
"They haven't sent the right people to talk to them. They only sent all these police. But they should be sending the government," said a vendor surnamed Huang, who sold silk scarves and underwear in the market since it opened.
The market, an outdoor alleyway that snakes from one of Beijing's main commercial thoroughfares through to the heart of the embassy district, is the latest among dozens of city neighborhoods being razed in favor of modern complexes.
China has also been trying to crack down on pirated goods, but authorities are opening an indoor market next door to the old Silk Alley that would accommodate three times as many stalls in an eight-story complex.
Local media have said the Silk Alley was being shut for safety reasons, citing fire hazards, but vendors said it was simply that the market had become an eyesore.
There has been a sharp rise in protests in China in recent years, driven in large part by a growing divide between the rich and poor. Most protesters aren't convicted but the government has come down hard on those who organize demonstrations.
Ye Guozhu, a Beijing protest organizer and activist against evictions, was sentenced to four years in prison last month for planning a demonstration.
Zheng Enchong, a Shanghai lawyer who helped residents seek compensation for evictions, was sentenced to three years in jail last year, after being found guilty of "illegally obtaining state secrets" in a closed-door trial.
Meanwhile district government officials in southern China yesterday denied media reports that hundreds of masseuses and barber shop workers rioted over the proposed demolition of their workplaces in Shenzhen, saying instead that a settlement had been reached.
An agreement has been brokered in southern China's booming metropolis of Shenzhen involving the workers, an official with the Futian district government said, denying Hong Kong press reports that the workers rioted and armed police were called in after eviction proceedings began on Tuesday.
"There were no clashes with police or government officials and no one was arrested," the official named Zhang told reporters.
"The incident on Tuesday mainly was because some employers had not given the workers their salaries. The Futian district government discussed the issue with the employers and told them to meet the workers demands, pay them and help them find new jobs."