ZENGCHENG, China (Reuters) - Chinese riot police brought a semblance of calm to the riot-torn southern Chinese city of Zengcheng on Tuesday, but the anger of migrant workers at being discriminated against by the authorities remained palpable in this key export hub.
In the wake of the latest protests, a state think-tank warned that China’s tens of millions of workers pouring into cities from the countryside would become a serious threat to stability unless they were treated more fairly.
Riot police poured into Zengcheng after migrant workers went on the rampage over the weekend to protest the abuse of a pregnant street hawker who had become a symbol of simmering grassroots discontent.
The protesters wrecked the government office in the city’s Dadun suburb, setting alight at least six vehicles. Parts of iron gates and spiked fence lay twisted and broken.
“We’re angry,” said a migrant worker from Sichuan, nervous about revealing his name given the massive deployment of riot police in his neighbourhood. “I feel the rule of law here doesn’t seem to exist ... the local officials can do what they want.”
Zengcheng is around an hour’s drive from Guangzhou, the affluent capital of far southern Guangdong province, which produces about a third of the country’s exports. About 150 million workers have moved from the countryside to the city in search of a better standard of living.
Wages have improved, but there remains a stark gap between migrant workers and those originally from the city, which has fomented resentment and made many feel like second class citizens.
Other clashes have erupted in southern China in recent weeks, including in Chaozhou, where hundreds of migrant workers demanding payment of wages at a ceramics factory attacked government buildings and set vehicles ablaze.
“We have seen these kinds of disturbance on a regular basis in China for several years now. I think you can possibly say there has been a bit of an upsurge, certainly visible disturbance in the last few weeks,” said Geoffrey Crothall of workers’ rights group China Labour Bulletin.
“I don’t think it will affect the investment environment in China as a whole. I think the impact of these disturbances on the Chinese economy as a whole are still very low level,” he added.
Zengcheng, surrounded by a warren of tenement blocks and small jeans factories, has become a vibrant export hub for garments. More than half of the city’s population of 800,000 are migrant workers, many of whom from Sichuan.
Like millions of other migrant workers in the Pearl River Delta, those at Zengcheng say their already grim lives have become worse due to rampant inflation and discrimination.
Many migrant workers in Dadun complained about corrupt officials making random street arrests against hawkers, imposing discretionary “hygeine” charges and security fines on family-run denim factories, further eroding razor-thin earnings as the price of cotton yarn and wholesale denim fabric rise.
“We sometimes only earn several hundred yuan a month because we’re paid per garment. There tend to be less orders in the first half of the year,” said a middle-aged woman from Sichuan as she stitched a pile of black denim shorts while colleagues used abrasive tools to rip and scar jeans for a modish look.
Pork, a staple for many migrant workers, has increased from around 9 yuan to 13 yuan for half a kg over the past year, said Yu, the elderly migrant worker.
“We have no choice, we just have to make a living,” he said in a grimy jeans factory where he was printing labels for a local brand. “We can’t go home.”
The state think-tank report said the majority of migrant workers had no intention of returning to their rural origins, making them a serious threat to China’s stability if their needs in the cities they now call home, were not better addressed.
“If they are not absorbed into urban society, and do not enjoy the rights that are their due, many conflicts will accumulate,” the report, published on Tuesday, said.
“If mishandled, this will create a major destabilising threat,” it said of the festering resentment. Though protests have become relatively common over anything from corruption to abuse of power, the ruling Communist Party is sensitive to any possible threat to its hold on power in the wake of the protests that have swept the Arab world. Despite pervasive censorship and government controls, word of protests, along with often dramatic pictures, spreads fast in China on mobile telephones and the Internet, especially on popular microblogging sites.
Additional reporting by Kelvin Soh, Alison Leung, Xavier Ng and Charlie Zhu, Editing by Jonathan Thatcher