TOPICS > World

Growing Dissent From Youth, Labor Unions Spark Rare Protests in China

June 30, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
Growing dissent among young people and labor union members has sparked rare protests in China. Independent Television News' John Sparks reports from the southeastern city of Xintang, which saw four days of protests in recent weeks.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

MARGARET WARNER: Finally tonight, growing dissent in China from young people and labor unions.

John Sparks of Independent Television News reports from the southeastern city of Xintang, which saw four days of protests earlier this month.

JOHN SPARKS: In the People’s Republic of China, stability is king and dissent forbidden. Yet, many of its citizens are unwilling to toe the party line. A younger generation, in cities like this one, are increasingly frustrated and calling for change.

If you own a pair of jeans, there’s a good chance they were made here, stitched together by laborers who are hardworking, poorly paid and obedient. But things are changing fast in China. There’s a new generation of workers who want more.

Two weeks ago, the streets erupted in a city called Xintang. A pregnant woman who ran a stall was beaten by local police, say protesters. And the news traveled fast. In scenes captured on a mobile phone, rioters overwhelm and destroy the police headquarters.

We rarely see pictures like this in China, but such disturbances are occurring more frequently, say human rights groups.

NICHOLAS BEQUELIN, Human Rights Watch: We have a more volatile and more tense situation in China across the board. Protesters will take to the streets, will riot, will attack symbols of the government. The government, in turn, will depart from rule of law and use things such as kidnapping, intimidation, retribution against families.

JOHN SPARKS: We found Xintang under lockdown, a police unit stationed every 20 meters in the center of town. They had regained control, no danger of an Arab-style uprising here. And the city’s residents? Well, they didn’t want to chat.

“Don’t know anything,” said this man.

“It’s not convenient to talk about,” said another.

While scared to speak publicly, many here are angry and disillusioned. Migrants work 12, 14, even 16 hour days in Xintang’s factories, but the rising cost of living in China means they barely make ends meet.

We found a labor activist to talk to us.

LI YUAN FENG, labor activist (through translator): There is no future for young workers. They can’t live a decent life in the city, and they can’t afford to send money home either. It’s modern-day slavery.

JOHN SPARKS: That evening, Mr. Li arranged for us to meet some migrant workers. As an activist and critic of the Chinese government, he is frequently targeted by the police, so we kept our distance. He took us to a sweltering flat in an overcrowded block. A group of young people told me they’d had enough.

HUANG JIE, China (through translator): We’re not free. We’re stuck on the factory floor for hours. And we get so little money.

NANG KAI, China (through translator): Even if we’re paid overtime, we’re still poor. Prices are soaring. We have no quality of life.

JOHN SPARKS: Mr. Li worked with a lawyer called Tang Jingling, who took cases on behalf of workers. In February, however, Mr. Tang disappeared, and his wife and mother are thought to be under house arrest.

In fact, the month of February marked the beginning of the most severe crackdown on dissent in China in 20 years. Inspired by events overseas, activists gathered for a protest in Beijing. And like the citizens of Tunisia and Egypt, they used the Internet to organize.

But they were met by the overwhelming power of the state. Participants were bundled up and marched through unmarked doors.

NICHOLAS BEQUELIN: In the aftermath of the Arab spring, the Chinese government came to the conclusion that there is only one way to silence outspoken critics on the Internet. It’s to physically take them off the grids. You have to kidnap them. You have to hold them incommunicado.

JOHN SPARKS: You remove them from the scene.

NICHOLAS BEQUELIN: You remove them from the scene.

JOHN SPARKS: Such allegations are firmly rejected by Chinese officials. We spoke to one in southeast China. And I asked about the increasing number of protests.

To what extent are these protests, these strikes a threat to harmony in the region?

The head of the regional reform commission said China was entering a transition phase, but tensions would ease over time. Harmony and stability are the Chinese Communist Party’s priorities. And many here know or care little for revolutions overseas. But meeting the growing expectations of young people will test the party’s leadership to the limit.