Beijing Lets Unpaid Laborers Protest

Associated Press Writer

January 28, 2003, 1:55 AM EST


BEIJING -- With no work in his rural hometown, Chen Dehai moved to Beijing, joining the flood of migrant labor that builds China's skyscrapers, paves its roads and does the other dirty work of its economic boom.

But Chen says that after six months of construction work at a luxury housing complex, he was never paid. So he and 100 coworkers did something that is increasingly common in China -- they protested in public, barricading the entrance of another property owned by the same company.

"We're not getting wages, and that's not right," said Chen, 26.

Police did something that, despite China's lack of tolerance for dissent, also is becoming common -- they watched but didn't interfere in the Jan. 17 protest, or in a series of other small labor protests this month in Beijing.

Not only are police allowing such protests, but state-run newspapers are taking the unusual step of reporting them. No one knows how long the government will let this continue, but it closely follows a Communist Party leadership change and a new official mandate allowing more rights for China's low-paid migrants -- all 94 million of them.

Scholars say such toleration of small protests shows growing official sympathy for the struggles of economic migrants -- so long as they don't try to organize unions or take other steps that the communist government considers a threat to its power.

Previously, China's household registration rules were aimed at keeping poor farmers down on the farm -- and out of the cities -- to maintain government control.

But the State Council, or Cabinet, unveiled a new policy Jan. 15 that says peasants should no longer be considered illegal workers when they leave their home villages. Instead, it says, they should have legal rights in employment, housing and education when they move to cities.

Chen had traveled 400 miles north to Beijing from Henan province to find work, but says he never got the $720 for six months' toil. He had heard of peasants being cheated this way in the big city, but he came anyway.

"We have no other choice," Chen said. "Give us money, so we can eat."

Previously, migrants like Chen were outside the law and lived in cities as squatters. They still have no way to register formally as city dwellers, and there are no courts to help them.

But the government now recognizes that migration is "the necessary trend of industrialization and modernization," said Zhao Shukai of the Development Research Center, a think tank that advises the Cabinet.

"This is a very big change," he said. "Nowadays, the central government is paying close attention to migrant workers."

Official newspapers are promoting this new tone, reporting on small protests by migrants in cities around the country.

The China Youth Daily printed a reader's letter on its front page supporting workers' efforts to get back pay. A photo in the China Daily showed protesters with signs reading: "I want wages."

"My guess is that the Public Security has been told to allow the people to protest," said Dorothy Solinger, a Chinese politics specialist at the University of California, Irvine. "And the press is also told to be sympathetic."

Solinger and others point to the new State Council decree as the force behind the changes -- and the appointment of Hu Jintao as Communist Party general secretary in November as the root cause.

The party has been talking for several years about policy changes aimed at spreading the prosperity of China's economic reforms to the countryside. In Hu's first months as party leader, state media have portrayed him as deeply concerned about the rural poor and unemployed workers.

But change may prove piecemeal and sporadic, Solinger said.

"I think that it won't be too long before we see the old behavior coming back in full force, with local police detaining people and locking them up," she said.

It isn't clear yet whether local officials will go along with rules that could flood cities with rural workers, pushing down wages and perhaps worsening unemployment, Solinger said.

Indeed, prosperous cities such as Shanghai and the southern financial center of Shenzhen have resisted treating migrants more equitably, said Nicolas Becquelin, research director in Hong Kong for the group Human Rights in China.

But China's top leaders could be allowing small protests and sympathetic newspaper articles as a way to change city residents' minds about letting peasants in, Becquelin said.

"They want to push public opinion in favor of implementing these changes," he said.

Copyright 2003, The Associated Press



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