A rebellion against second-class status

June 28, 2011

David Whitehouse explains the backdrop to rioting in China's Guangdong province.

YOUNG WORKERS in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong rioted for three days in mid-June after security guards roughed up a married pair of street peddlers while removing them from a space in front of a supermarket. One account in the South China Morning Post said the guards first demanded a bribe and then delivered the beatings when the peddlers offered too little money.

The revolt, in Zengcheng, an hour's drive outside the affluent provincial capital of Guangzhou, was the largest in a string of recent cases where so-called migrant workers have rebelled against their second-class social status. In the same province just four days before, "clashes between migrants and police broke out after a worker in a ceramics factory was stabbed, allegedly on the orders of his boss when he went to ask for unpaid wages," according to the Financial Times.

Workers whose families originate in some other province receive low pay and are deprived of social benefits--such as public education, health care and unemployment insurance--that local residents are entitled to.

Migrant workers stand near overturned cop cars in Xintang town, a garment district in Guangdong province
Migrant workers stand near overturned cop cars in Xintang town, a garment district in Guangdong province

Residential registration, known as hukou, is hereditary, so a long-term urban worker may remain classified for life as a "migrant farmer" in much the same way that apartheid South Africa treated its Black workers as foreigners lacking the rights of full citizens. According to official figures, China has more than 220 million "migrants," whose cheap labor has formed the basis for the country's booms in construction and exports.

Residents are accustomed to witnessing violence by security forces against migrants, but on the evening of June 10, one of the street-peddler victims was a pregnant 20-year-old, Wang Lianmei.

Local university students interviewed more than 24 eyewitnesses to the incident and the ensuing riots, according to the Morning Post, reporting that:

Wang was hurt when she tried to stop three to four security guards from beating her husband as they confiscated their merchandise. The guards ran away when they saw a crowd gathering, and local government officials were sent in. Wang refused to get into an ambulance and fell.

Officials angered onlookers with comments like: "If the pregnant woman dies, how about we pay 500,000 yuan [$77,000]?" The report said some onlookers threw bricks before riot police dispersed the crowd with tear gas...More than 2,000 workers from factories nearby then began to gather, forcing the police to retreat. They torched police cars and [the village of] Dadun's police station.

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According to the report:

[E]ven more demonstrators turned up on the second day, as police made extensive use of tear gas and non-lethal firearms.

It estimated that some 10,000 protesters took part in the riot on the third night, with People's Liberation Army troops joining the suppression effort. People could not assemble on the fourth day as the police sealed off roads. The students confirmed that Wang and her husband were safe by talking to their relatives.

ACCORDING TO other witness accounts online, security forces detained as many as 1,000 people, but the authorities reported only 19 official arrests. China's Internet censors scrubbed the Web of images of the confrontations in an attempt to keep news of the riots away from migrant workers elsewhere. Police also arrested a micro-blogger who allegedly spread a rumor that security forces had killed someone on the first night.

The town of Zengcheng offered to grant local hukou and wads of money to any migrants who gave information leading to further arrests. There were no reports of any takers among the generally tight-knit workforce, which tends to hail from the same provinces and even the same local schools.

The Morning Post reported that workers from Sichuan--a province that doesn't even neighbor Guangdong--traveled to join the riots on the second and third days. Sichuan is the home province of the two peddlers and of 60 percent of workers in the riots' epicenter, the village of Dadun.

Some reporters pointed out that Beijing has stepped up repression since activists and micro-bloggers inspired by the "Arab Spring" raised the idea of a generalized Chinese revolt to be known, like Tunisia's, as the "Jasmine Revolution."

Repression of migrant revolts, however, has been swift and brutal for years. One local man told the Morning Post, "Those security people are ruthless and have been barbaric for a very long time. No one has ever been able to control them."

Nobody expects the career of the provincial chief, Wang Yang, to be damaged by the crackdown. In typical Communist Party fashion, Wang--the originator of the "Happy Guangdong" campaign, which promises to redress the province's inequality--can blame lower officials at township and village levels.

One analyst said, "Top-level politicians are concerned only whether their ruling position is being threatened, such as during the Jasmine Revolution. But in fact, Wang might have gained an extra bonus for his crisis management during these incidents."

The Xintang section of Zengcheng is known as the "blue jean capital of the world," producing 60 different foreign brands, according to the Morning Post,

accounting for about half the 450 million pairs of jeans sold the United States each year. Young workers in factories who sew and dye denim garments can earn up to 3,000 yuan a month [about $460] if they take on extra shifts, but the older ones who are stuck in small workshops process half-completed jeans for just half that amount.

Dadun is a village inside Xintang where the most denim factories are concentrated. The village is home to 60,000 migrants and just 7,000 permanent residents--two groups that are estranged from each other by their divergent social status, compounded by urban prejudice against Chinese of peasant origin.

"Local people," reports Xinhua, China's official news source, "refer to the area where these workers live as the 'village inside the city.' Many of the locals who used to live there have moved out, renting their former homes to the migrant workers. In these 'villages,' buildings are lined up like dominoes, sometimes so close together that they are called 'handshake buildings,' implying that people in two separate buildings can shake hands with each other through their windows.

Tong Menshi, for example, lives in a 10-square-meter room with a curtain dividing her from her parents.

Foreign orders for denim have been down since April, and food and rent prices have been rising at nearly a 10 percent yearly rate. Pork is more expensive than ever, and the older and poorer migrants are now paying more than half of their wages to landlords.

CHINA'S IRON fist may be nothing new, but the combativeness of migrant workers reflects a generational shift over the past decade. In China's immense population of 1.3 billion, there are two "bulges" of about 120 million people each--between ages 40 and 50, and between ages 15 and 25. These correspond roughly to two generations of migrant workers whose experiences diverge dramatically.

The first generation came "fresh off the farm" in the 1980s and '90s, lived in dormitories under the iron rule of contractors for foreign companies like Nike and Disney, and had few skills and little leverage against the bosses--because so many other workers could take their place.

Following the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, the resurgence of struggle in the 1990s arose from the peasants themselves, not from their children who migrated to find wage work in the coastal sweatshops. The Morning Post interviewed one member of this generation about the treatment of the peddlers in Zengcheng:

A 52-year-old woman from Dazhou in Sichuan, who arrived in Dadun in 1997, said she had become desensitized to the brutal beatings that happened in the village every day. "When I first came, I was very scared to see migrant workers being beaten up and left half dead, but now I'm used to it," she said.

The generation that arrived in the coastal boom areas in the 2000s, however, "are not as tolerant as their fathers when faced with inequality," sociologist Lu Xueyi told Xinhua, while these "migrants of the second generation" are also more worldly--"more interested in contemporary culture and entertainment than their predecessors."

The change in attitude is largely a result of a changing situation--the flow of young people off the farms has not kept pace with the growth of wage jobs. "With a labor shortage of 2 million people in Guangdong [the migrants] are aware of their worth as inland cities compete for their services," Jonathan Fenby of Trusted Sources, a consultancy, told the Financial Times.

As a result, "Young migrant workers are becoming increasingly vocal and are not ready to accept the conditions under which the parents labored in the first decades of economic reform."

Young migrant workers have spearheaded the surge in urban strikes and demonstrations that have arisen since the mid-2000s, including last year's wave of strikes against Japanese auto companies--all organized without independent unions, which are illegal.

Although older workers supported the recent riots, most of the arrestees were under age 25. Until recently, most mass riots have been in the countryside, while urban struggles have often centered around workplace abuses. In recent years, however, migrants, especially in boom provinces like Guangdong, have begun to rise up against the everyday indignities they suffer on the street from security forces or arrogant bosses and party members.

China's overall level of class struggle has climbed steadily since the mid-1990s. Officials keep track of strikes, demonstrations and riots with the deliberately vague name of "mass incidents." From 1994 to 2004, mass incidents rose sevenfold, from 10,000 to 72,000. By 2008, the number was 127,000. According to the Los Angeles Times, "a sociologist at Beijing's Tsinghua University reported this year that China has had 180,000 'mass incidents' in 2010, double the number in 2006."

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