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China Clamps Down on Protests in Restive Worker Region

Riot police responding to protest in Xintang, China, on June 13. Photo by STR/AFP/Getty Images

Protests are nothing new in China. There are thousands every year, but this year’s demonstrations are different — both in their intensity and in the government’s response.

The protests themselves seem to be getting more active, particularly in the south where many migrant factory workers live, said Kathleen McLaughlin, GlobalPost’s Beijing correspondent. “There were a lot of protests and strikes last summer, but this year they devolved into actual riots and there seemed to be some concern over regional fighting,” she said.

But she told us she found a different cause during a recent visit to Guangdong province to report on the roots of the protests.

Rather than regional fighting, it was access to basic necessities that the migrant workers felt they were missing, and they were fed up.

In China, people are tied to the city where they’re born by a household registration. And when they travel to other places for work or other reasons, they don’t have as many rights as the area’s residents, McLaughlin explained.

In Xintang, one of the towns she visited in Guangdong province, about 80 percent of the people there are from other places, but they’re not entitled to education for their children, health care, or other basic necessities, she said.

“In years past when the factory zone was really booming, a lot of people put up with that because they could make a lot of money,” she noted. But now that production has slowed — with shrinking orders from the United States, Europe and other places — there are fewer jobs and less money, and people are becoming more unhappy with their living situation.

For example, workers in Xintang try to make extra money when they’re not in the factories by driving motorcycle taxis, but as new residents they can’t get a driver’s permit. The feeling of injustice is simmering below the surface, and when something touches off a protest — like a factory withholding wages to a worker — thousands will riot, she said.

The government’s response has also escalated. In Xintang, the government deployed paramilitary forces to patrol the streets, a sight that seemed more familiar in a place known for its unruly demonstrations like Tibet, McLaughlin said. “That signaled to me that they’re not going to put up with any dissent this time.”

The security clampdown this year is also generally attributed to the protests roiling the Middle East and North Africa, which Chinese authorities don’t want to see imitated in their country. But in general, after a few small, failed protests in Beijing and Shanghai, China hasn’t seen the same type of large-scale protests that challenged governments in Egypt and Tunisia.

The central government has taken another unusual step in response to the workers’ protests in the south by issuing reports critical of the local governments, saying their policies are partly to blame for the unrest, said McLaughlin. It puts the responsibility squarely on the local governments, which so far haven’t made any major policy changes, she said.

One change that has occurred country-wide this year is an increase in the minimum wage, she said, but that led some to speculate that it made matters even worse, because factories can’t employ as many people or fully address complaints about working conditions.

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