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China faces growing labor unrest

Workers in Liaoyang are threatening to march again this week if protest leaders are not freed from jail.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 25, 2002


The main road into Fushun in China's northern "rust belt" is lined with weedy factory yards and brick buildings so crumbled it appears a marauding army passed through.

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Last week, as part of a large wave of labor protests in northern China, an army did twice block this road – an army of 4,000 to 10,000 xiagang, or laid-off workers, from heavy industries that were once the pride of China's command-and-control economy.

As many as 80,000 idled workers in Fushun and two other cities have taken to the streets recently.

Silently, illegally, like xiagang in nearby Daqing and Liaoyang, Fushun's former coal, cement, steel, and petrochemical factory employees marched to government offices, braving police and demanding living allowances they say stopped months ago. Late last week, Fushun officials dispersed the crowd by distributing about $9 to each protester.

In the rust belt, a deeply felt sense of grievance and fear is fodder for a potential mass movement not seen in China for many years. Such protests alone are not new. What's new is the combination of factors: the numbers of protesters, the cross-factory dialogue among workers, the simultaneous nature of the protests, a set of demands with a political edge to them, and unrest in the model Maoist city of Daqing.

China may have defused the protests, but it has yet to report them in its own media – evidence, experts say, of the level of sensitivity among officials to any independent activity outside Communist Party lines.

"There is a real sense of crisis," says one laid-off Fushun worker who sells statuettes carved from black amber, a local stone. "In the Mao era, people had security."

As China shifts to a market system, hundreds of inefficient state-owned enterprises have closed. The Tiger Platform coal mine in Fushun laid off 24,000 of 30,000 miners two years ago. Economists in and out of China agree such industries must go. But the "buyout" methods are leaving millions of unemployed, like those in Fushun, facing a threadbare future, even as they watch on TV – and on the streets – a new generation of Chinese, sometimes old bosses and their families, flaunting flashy new cars and cellphones, and spending wads of cash on shoes that would buy groceries for two years.

As industries close, a generation of the proletariat,raised under communist ideology to believe they were the "masters" of the country, now feel at the mercy of bankrupt companies and cash-poor municipalities.

For years, idled workers were designated as xiagang, a category meaning "laid off but not officially unemployed." The factory had to pay them a stipend of $30 to $55 a month. But under a new policy of factory buyouts that began two years ago, workers got a lump sum calculated according to the number of years worked. Once the buyout is finished, the factory no longer has responsibility. In Fushun, 20 years in the coal mines yields a buyout worth about $4,400.

To a simple worker, such lump sums seem mind-boggling. Yet, the jobless are now finding that in the new China, they must pay roughly $1,900 a year in costs never before anticipated – heating and medical and pension insurance, formerly paid by the state.