Zhongshan riot reveals long unresolved tensions in Guangdong

27 June 2019

A major riot involving hundreds of migrant workers in the Pearl River Delta city of Zhongshan this Monday and Tuesday has reignited long unresolved tensions between the local and migrant populations in Guangdong.

The cause of the riot was reportedly the beating and detention by local security forces of a 13-year-old boy from Chongqing who had been involved in a fight with a local boy. This trigger was very similar to that of a riot in the Guangzhou suburb of Zengcheng almost exactly a year ago, when security guards physically abused a pregnant street vendor from Sichuan.

In both cases, as news of the incident quickly spread among the migrant populations, more and more people joined the protests, leading to clashes with police and extensive damage to property. In the Zhongshan township of Shaxi, it was reported that several protestors had been killed and more than 100 injured, with more than 100 arrests.

In Shaxi, as in Zengcheng last year, the city was quickly locked down by security forces and it is expected to remain so for several days.

Following the riot in Zengcheng, and a similar migrant worker protest in Chaozhou last year, the Guangdong government promised to take more effective measures to resolve the long-standing problems faced by migrant workers in the province and better integrate them into local society.

The government has taken some steps, including setting up a federation of labour organizations in the province to more effectively tackle workers’ issues, but the tensions between the migrant and local population are decades old and the result of deeply ingrained structural issues, particularly the household registration system, which make migrants second class citizens in their own country.

According to statistics released last year, more than one third of Guangdong’s population are migrants, and in the towns of the Pearl River Delta that figure can rise to as high as 80 percent.

The provincial government claims that it will give 1.8 million migrants residency each year, however, it is highly unlikely that young migrant factory workers will benefit from this policy. Although restrictions on residency have been relaxed slightly in recent years, the provincial and local governments still only select the most eligible candidates, usually those with long-term, well-paid jobs and property or investments in the city.

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