Friday, June 17, 2011

Joan Chan: Protests highlight the plight of migrant workers in China

Protests highlight the plight of migrant workers in China
By John Chan
World Socialist Web Site

A huge police presence in Zengcheng, a satellite town of the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, has temporarily suppressed any further unrest over the past days, following angry protests by thousands of rural migrant workers last weekend.

On Monday and Tuesday, 2,000 riot police armed with shields, batons and shotguns paraded in a one-kilometre column through the streets of Xintang district, in a deliberate attempt to intimidate workers. Heavily-armed police set up checkpoints at major road intersections and a curfew was imposed throughout the town.

The protests were triggered last Friday when local government security personnel pushed a pregnant woman to the ground while removing small vendors from the front of a supermarket. Such are the social tensions in Zengcheng that the incident triggered rumours that the woman and her husband had been killed, igniting anger among migrant workers who face systematic abuse by police. Protesters clashed with riot police, burnt government buildings and smashed police cars.

A local shop owner told Agence France Presse on Wednesday: “It was very scary—the scariest thing I have encountered since I was born.” He reported that thousands of rioters had clashed with police. “Together they flipped police cars and set them on fire. A few hundred policemen then came. They started beating people indiscriminately with metal batons.”

Just days before the unrest in Zengcheng, similar protests erupted among migrant workers over unpaid wages in the city of Chaozhou, also in Guangdong province.

Yesterday, the Guangzhou police bureau announced that a man had been arrested for spreading the rumour online that the Zengcheng vendor had died. Officially, 25 protesters have been arrested. However, according to online eyewitness accounts, 1,000 people have been detained, out of up to 10,000 who took part in the Zengcheng protests.

To justify the police repression and stoke up ethnic divisions, attempts are being made to demonise “separatists” from Tibet and Xinjiang as the “black hand” behind the protests. The Hong Kong-based Ming Pao reported that local authorities handed out steel pipes and helmets to male residents and called on them to organise their “self-defence”.

This incitement to ethnic violence against rural migrants is a deliberate attempt to divert attention from the real issues behind protests, which stem from China’s deepening social polarisation, endemic official corruption and police-state repression.

A State Council Development Research Centre report issued on Tuesday acknowledged that the country’s 150 million rural migrant workers “are marginalised in the cities, treated as mere cheap labour, not absorbed by cities but even neglected, discriminated against and harmed.” It warned policy-makers: “If mishandled, this situation will create a major destabilising threat.”

Beijing’s answer is police repression. The Hong Kong-based Oriental Daily reported on Tuesday that central government officials held emergency meetings over the protests, “considered the situation as serious, and ordered the local authorities to carry out harsh repression.” The argument presented, according to the newspaper, was “kill one to scare one hundred.” The report paraphrased Zhang Jun, a deputy head of the Supreme Peoples Court, as saying “criminal elements extremely hostile to the state and society must be punished with the death penalty, with absolutely no mercy.”

The Oriental Daily noted that migrant workers in Zengcheng had suppressed their anger in the face of a massive police presence, but were “preparing economic revenge in a second wave of struggle.” It reported that workers were calling via the Internet for a month-long strike, “to economically bring down the ‘Capital of Jeans’ … in order to take revenge against the local law enforcement personnel and the wealthy layer’s prolonged exploitation of migrant workers.”

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