A Chinese Riot Rooted in Confusion

At lunchtime, workers file out of the Futai Textile Factory, which was the scene of a violent strike on June 3 over reduced pay for weaving sweaters.
At lunchtime, workers file out of the Futai Textile Factory, which was the scene of a violent strike on June 3 over reduced pay for weaving sweaters. (By Edward Cody -- The Washington Post)
By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 18, 2005

XIZHOU, China -- A lean worker in a red T-shirt squatted beside the battered police motorcycle and, reaching out with his cigarette lighter, ignited a trickle of leaking gasoline. Flames immediately whooshed to life, witnesses recalled, and black smoke licked up in an oily cloud, signaling that a chaotic strike at Futai Textile Factory had turned into a riot.

Before the day was over, several hundred anti-riot police had fired tear gas and swung truncheons against a mob of 3,000 enraged workers, who, witnesses said, had pelted cars and buses with rocks, bricks and watermelon rinds. Chanting demands for higher pay, the workers fought back as best they could, but ultimately most fled. A few of the injured ended up in the hospital, friends and relatives said, and about 20 were locked into jail cells.

The riot, on the morning of June 3, had its roots in the refusal of China's government to permit the establishment of any independent organization, including nongovernment labor unions, as a reliable, independent channel for workers' grievances. It was a shocking first for Xizhou, a raw industrial zone on the northeastern edge of the city of Guangzhou, in southern China's muggy Pearl River Delta. But across China there are thousands of such explosions every year -- by farmers who lose their land, workers who get laid off and villagers who feel cheated by corrupt officials.

The protests have become a major concern for the Communist Party government in Beijing at a time of meteoric economic growth and massive migration from villages to factories, raising the prospect of broad instability that could potentially undermine the party's grip on power. In apparent recognition of the danger, President Hu Jintao and his lieutenants have made appeals for "a harmonious society" and "social stability" a refrain in their public appearances.

Chinese laborers and farmers run a strong risk of prison time when they resort to protest. Yet a look at the riot here shows why, with growing frequency, they do so nevertheless. As in other incidents, Futai's violence involved poor and poorly educated people who felt they had suffered an injustice and had no representatives to do anything about it. At some point, their chagrin turned to anger, and their anger to rage.

Reduction in Pay

The troubles at Futai began the last day of May, when workers received their monthly salary at about 4 p.m. For many, the computer-generated pay slip contained intolerable news. From $60 to $100 a month for weaving sweaters, their piecework pay had slumped to $50, $40 and even lower, they said.

That, the workers complained, was not enough compensation for 11-hour shifts and one day's rest a month, the day after payday. So this time, instead of doing laundry and going to the Internet cafe, many of the young migrant workers spent their June 1 day off in long, angry conversations.

Despite the sour feelings, the workers went back to the weaving machines on schedule June 2. Since they were paid for every dozen sweaters they wove, standing down would mean no money at all.

But there was grumbling amid the rows of machines. Before long, according to those present, the workers whose paychecks had slumped the most backed away from their tasks and stood, doing nothing. They were joined by a growing number as the minutes ticked by. Those who tried to work, the witnesses said, were harassed by those engaged in the work stoppage. By the morning's end, they said, about half of the factory's 3,000 workers were refusing to make sweaters as usual.

"The pay is not reasonable!" the activists shouted, according to several workers who were on the factory floor. "Let's stop working!"

The striking workers, led by those whose pay had been most severely cut, gave a written list of demands to their unit foremen later that day and asked that they be passed along to factory management. They asked for more money and guarantees against abrupt fluctuations in salaries.

Their demands were answered by silence.

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