March 10, 2003
Workers' Plight Brings New Militancy in China
By ELISABETH ROSENTHAL
JIAMUSI, China This remote industrial outpost, a stone's throw from Siberia and snowbound for months at a time, usually hibernates for winter. But not this year. Since last fall, tens of thousands of disgruntled workers in this former workers' paradise have defiantly staged a series of protests.
On some days, retirees blocked all traffic on the main highway into town, squatting in rows on the pavement. On other days, thousands of laid-off textile workers sat on railway tracks, disrupting service. In late December, workers from an ailing pulp mill lay like frozen soldiers on Jiamusi's only runway, preventing planes from landing.
[Today, workers once again took to the streets of Jiamusi, blocking the train track for 20 minutes until the police forced them away and then marching through the city in protest, according to China Labor Watch, a group based in the United States.]
Jiamusi's failing state-owned factories have laid off huge numbers of workers in the last five years, leaving families with nothing to live on. Eighty percent of people in their 40's are out of work, residents say, receiving at best about $20 a month from the government. Retirees have no way to pay medical expenses.
"We Chinese workers are honest and humble we protest only because we have no choice," said one worker who witnessed the protests and would give only his surname, Li. "We've lost our iron rice bowl" a secure livelihood "but how can we survive without even the most basic help?"
Vice President Hu Jintao, who became Communist Party chief last fall and is expected to be named president at the National People's Congress meeting in Beijing, has said his government will give urgent attention to his country's "disadvantaged groups," particularly farmers and laid-off workers.
In Jiamusi, the depth of disadvantage is evident as is the restiveness that has led to the wildfire spread of protest all across China and is forcing the government to act.
China's elites "face growing pressure and resistance strikes, collective petitions, explosions and acts of violence," said Kang Xiaoguang, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. "All this public discontent threatens security and stability and may force concessions."
Although the protests are technically illegal, the workers' grievances are often viewed as legitimate and their plight evokes enormous public sympathy. In 2001, the number of appeals and protests to government offices grew 7.2 percent and the number of participants by 11.7 percent, wrote Du Gangjian, a researcher, in The Economic Observer, a leading newspaper.
Chinese police journals are now filled with advice about "managing" rather than "crushing" protests, allowing peaceful demonstrations to proceed and detaining only the ringleaders afterward. Likewise, local officials now tend to meet with protesters, acceding to at least some of their monetary demands.
"As the market economy has developed, mass incidents are constantly occurring and they are characterized by high levels of organization, dramatic impact and major disturbances of society," wrote Liu Wie, a police official, in the magazine Public Security Research last year.
But he added that the police and government had to respond to the crises with "utmost care" because "if we lose the support of the masses, even if their measures do hold things down for a while, they will rebound and do even more damage."
In the short term, the conciliatory tactics tend to ease the unrest, even though payments are generally far less than the workers are owed. But they have also created new expectations among China's masses and are slowly altering the previously one-way social contract between an authoritarian leadership and its nonvoting population.
"If they contain and manage, rather than deter, they could create a dicey situation for the government," said Murray Scot Tanner, a political scientist at Western Michigan University. "Choosing this route, I wonder if the government can avoid getting drawn into some negotiation with society over larger issues, concerning politics and power."
The workers of Jiamusi turned to protest only after realizing that lesser measures were getting them nowhere. There is a credo well known to laid-off workers these days: "A small disturbance leads to a small solution, a large disturbance leads to a big solution. No disturbance leads to no solution." Often, the only brake on demonstrators is the knowledge that police tolerance has its limits.
Jiamusi is a depressed and depressing place: laid-off workers in ragged coats shiver in freezing temperatures, tending plastic buckets containing a icy fish for sale. Factory apartments have water for only an hour a day. In some families, three generations are unemployed.
There was never much work here except that provided by state factories, part of China's planned economy. So entire families were left without jobs when these economic dinosaurs began to fail in the transition to a market-based system.
The situation was particularly glaring at the Jiamusi Textile Factory, which once employed 14,000 workers. "Before everyone wanted to work there because conditions were so good housing, health care, pensions," said a worker named Liu. "I, my wife and four brothers all worked there, too."
The workers never dreamed that the mill was bankrupt when it suddenly shut production in 1998, offering to pay each employee the equivalent of about $20 a month in living expenses. Factory officials kept workers in the dark, selling off the factory's assets to pay its debts.
Two years later the payments stopped altogether. But the workers were not informed of the factory's bankruptcy until last May, when official termination notices were issued.
In response, workers' representatives traveled to the provincial capital, Harbin, and later to Beijing, demanding the pay and benefits to which they were entitled by law. In Beijing, they presented government officials with petitions containing hundreds of signatures. Then they went home and waited.
"The fundamental problem in Jiamusi is that there is no market and there are no opportunities," said Mr. Liu, who said 70 percent of the factories were bankrupt and the remaining 30 percent were failing.
He said he generally supported the economic reforms, but added that they had come at a cost: "The gap between rich and poor is growing. And the poor need a little help."
By November, with temperatures well below zero, thousands of workers from the textile factory began a series of increasingly well organized protests. Though the police occasionally arrested an organizer, others emerged. The authorities acknowledge that they were up against new and potent social forces.
"In recent years, the degree of organization of mass incidents has intensified; the period of inception is quite long, and there are abundant preparations made," wrote Li Shenxue, an official in Jilin Province, in People's Petitions and Appeals, a government magazine. "There are even budding tendencies toward the formation of spontaneously organized `trade unions,' and `associations' and other `unapproved organizations for defending rights.' "
In late November, textile workers sat on the train tracks for more than an hour after the police stopped them from boarding a train bound for Beijing. City officials met with them in a station lounge. But when talk yielded no action, the workers returned this time with reinforcements. On Dec. 2, they marched through the city and staged a sit-in on the tracks that lasted from morning until night.
The police, many of whom had relatives at the factory, did little to disperse them. Restaurants near the station welcomed protesters, providing them with meals and tea.
During the next week, there were three straight days of meetings at the local movie theater, where officials sought to placate the workers. On Dec. 5, they were offered about $15 a month for living expenses a triumph of sorts, but not as much as they were owed under their contract.
Inspired by that success, laid-off workers from a nearby pulp mill, which once employed 8,000, descended on the airport and lay down in the snowy runway, preventing planes from landing. Now, each worker at the mill is getting about $30 a month for living expenses, more than the textile workers because the pulp mill has a bit more money.
Already the workers from the textile factory are grumbling that the city has not given them enough. "You can't live on $15 a month," said Mr. Liu. "Our basic problem hasn't been solved."
Copyright: New York Times