Unrest brewing in China among state workers

August 10, 1994|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau of The Sun

WUHAN, China -- A volatile tide of anger is rising among workers in China's faltering state industries, a tide that could swell into the next major round of political instability here.

While China's overall economy booms, two-thirds of its state-run enterprises -- long hampered by inefficiency and overstaffing -- aren't making money.

With state subsidies drying up and pressures for market-oriented reforms mounting, millions of urban workers have been laid off from their jobs with no pay, or with just the promise of a small fraction of their regular salaries.

In general, these workers -- particularly the old and unskilled -- are the losers in the vast economic changes sweeping through China, and they're not happy about it.

Workers are also angry over official corruption, which appears to be growing at virtually every level, and inflation, which has been galloping along in major Chinese cities at an annual rate of 25 percent to 40 percent.

Over the past year, China's state-controlled news media have reported on an increasing number of strikes, labor disputes and worker demonstrations. An official report issued last week says that the incidence of arbitrated labor problems this year is running 66 percent ahead of last year's.

But Chinese labor activists say that this year alone there have been hundreds of sizable strikes and worker protests outside Beijing -- all unreported in the state media.

In Wuhan, a large center of heavy industry along the Yangtze River in central China, "there's been some kind of [labor] incident every other month," says a cab driver who was laid off last year along with hundreds of other workers at the Wuhan Knitting and Dyeing Factory. "Up to now, these incidents have been managed in one way or another, but there will be a big explosion soon," says the driver, whose name cannot be used for fear of official retribution.

"The crisis will be even worse than June 4," he says, referring to the bloody 1989 military crackdown on the student-led protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. "If the country won't or can't help its workers, they'll be furious. And no soldier would shoot them because in almost everyone's life, there is a worker."

The cab driver, now in his 40s, has been Communist Party member for more than two decades. But in recent years, his loyalty has been worn thin: "The system's not working. It's letting workers starve, putting them under pressure. If I knew that all this would happen, I'd rather we have the Kuomintang," the Chinese Nationalists who fled to Taiwan after losing a civil war with the Communists in the 1940s.

The spread of such heretical sentiments these days through the ranks of workers in China's cities strikes a sharp note of fear within China's leadership. A worker-led revolt, along the lines of the successful Solidarity movement in Poland in the late 1980s, is perhaps the party's worst nightmare.

Beijing has responded with its first set of labor laws aimed at protecting workers from abuses and a propaganda campaign against unsafe working conditions in some joint ventures, particularly those run by Hong Kong and Taiwanese investors. It also has clamped down firmly on activists who have recently tried to organize workers outside China's weak, government-run trade union.

Han Dongfang, who led Beijing workers during the Tiananmen protests, was jailed and then exiled. Not allowed to return to China last year after visiting the United States, he now agitates for mainland workers' rights from Hong Kong.

"China is about to explode due to fierce repression against workers," Mr. Han recently warned while meeting Italian labor leaders in Rome. "The bureaucrats are getting rich while the conditions of millions of peasants and workers are getting worse and worse."

Earlier this year, more than two dozen Beijing dissidents also began to campaign openly for an independent trade union. In March, they sent a copy of the union's charter to the government. Virtually all of them were soon arrested.

The stakes are high. China's state industries employ more than 100 million workers, or more than two-thirds of the nation's industrial work force. Moreover, state firms typically function as self-contained societies, providing cradle-to-grave benefits for their workers, including guaranteed jobs, housing, education and medical care.

China's deficit-ridden central government faces a no-win choice: Continue to prop up failing firms with bank loans that never will be repaid or risk widespread social turmoil by letting them go under.

"The situation is very complicated, a little bit dangerous," admits Zhao Gongqing, an economic affairs official in Chongqing, a large industrial city in western Sichuan Province, where labor protests have also taken place this spring.

Even China's official press last month candidly acknowledged the workers' mounting ire. The state's Worker's Daily newspaper warned that increasing labor conflicts could lead to "harmful social movements that could obstruct social change."

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