washingtonpost.com
A Chinese Riot Rooted in Confusion
Lacking a Channel for Grievances, Garment Workers Opt to Strike

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.

Company Response

Futai's management had reacted to the demands by calling a meeting of executives for the next day to discuss raising salaries. But no one told the workers.

Wu Huihai, China operations chief for the company that owns the factory, was apprised of the budding trouble late on June 2, he recalled, and swiftly summoned factory managers for a meeting June 3. He expressed amazement that workers felt their demands had been ignored.

"If I just shut my ears, that would be one thing," he said. "But no. I called a meeting for the next day."

Wu Huiquan, whose Hong Kong-based Fu Xin group owns the Futai Textile Factory, said his company's relations with the workers were so good that, in contrast to other factories in the region, it has had no trouble keeping enough employees to function at full speed.

"If conditions were not good, the workers would not come," said Wu Huihai, who was interviewed at the company's headquarters in Hong Kong.

Workers at the Futai factory, one of 10 run by Fu Xin in a $100 million-a-year business, earn an average of $85 to $105 a month, with some of the more agile and experienced making considerably more, Wu Huihai said.

Kenneth Wan, a sales director for one of Fu Xin's marketing spinoffs, said the salary dip in May for some workers, particularly the less experienced, was due to seasonal fluctuations. Wan said their pay was affected by the factory's annual early spring shortage of orders. The May 31 paychecks, he pointed out, reflected the number of sweaters made in April, a traditionally slow month.

"Every year the same thing," he said. "February, March, April, always happening like that. Trouble always happens in April or March."

Unanswered Demands

As the workers again filed into Futai's vast workroom at 7 a.m. on June 3, resentment was in the air. A worker named Liu, who agreed to describe what happened on condition that only his common surname be used, said by that humid early morning, the simmering labor action was on everybody's mind.

Strikes have long been banned in China. Liu and the others knew that anyone identified as a strike leader could end up in prison. In addition, they all needed their jobs; factory work was the reason they left their home villages in the first place.

But the boiling point had been reached. Liu, a pudgy 28-year-old with an image of his former girlfriend tattooed on his arm, said the preceding day's demand for higher pay was still unanswered as far as anybody on the factory floor knew.

"If there had been a response, there would not have been a strike," said one of the activists.

Despite encouragement from the unit foremen, hardly anyone began weaving that morning. Workers in Group 3, one of five units in the factory, began to chant, "No raise, no work!" Workers in Group 4 quickly joined in, according to those present, and the shouting spread to other groups.

Then workers from Group 5 ran over and shut off the electricity supply to Group 3, workers said, whereupon people from Group 3 dashed over to cut off Group 1. At that point, for reasons that are not known, the entire neighborhood's electricity supply was suddenly cut off, according to workers and factory managers, and the weaving machines all went dead.

"Work is over!" one worker recalled his foreman shouting, and they all spilled out the factory gate into the dusty street.

Anger in the Street

Outside the iron-grille gate, most of the workforce had gathered in an intersection where street vendors line the sidewalks. They chanted demands for higher pay. Traffic began to back up in three directions, horns squealing and drivers shouting. Some workers responded by throwing watermelon rinds found lying under the vendors' tables. Before long, according to workers on the scene, stones also flew from the buzzing mob.

At that, workers said, a half-dozen members of Xizhou's unarmed Security Protection Personnel rode up on their red motorcycles and began pushing at the milling workers with five-foot-long, red-white-and-blue staves. Striking workers later surmised that an upset motorist must have called the police to complain about the blocked intersection and the stone-throwing.

The security guards, in their light green uniforms, were widely despised by Futai's corps of migrant workers. Paid by the community to keep order and protect buildings, they clashed frequently with young workers out on the town. Moreover, they collected a $2-a-month "sanitation fee" from each worker -- in return for doing nothing, the workers complained -- and often visited dormitories at 2 or 3 a.m. to check that everyone inside had paid up.

What had been a volatile situation tipped into confrontation. Many workers began fighting back, hurling stones at the security guards. In response, the guards began beating people with their staves.

"People's anger was exploding like fire," said a worker who had been in the crowd. "A lot of people hate those security guys, because they are always bullying us workers. They take money from us for no good reason."

Outnumbered, the guards stood little chance. They fled, leaving their motorcycles behind. Workers immediately set on the abandoned vehicles, Liu and the others said, kicking them and bashing them with stones.

As the guards fled, a van with a dozen regular policemen drove up, and was met by a hail of rocks. At the same time, about 9 a.m., workers said they heard a factory executive shouting from a second-floor window: "If you come back in now, it won't be a big deal."

Liu said one police officer asked him to help persuade the workers to go back inside the factory walls before the violence got any worse. "I said, 'How can I? There are thousands of them,' " he recalled. The answer to both requests was more rock-throwing, according to workers on the scene. The police officers tried to break up the crowd with truncheons and chase the workers back inside the factory compound.

That was when the black smoke rose above the burning motorcycle, signaling a serious breach of law and the crossing of a line. Many workers backed away, afraid the burning vehicle would explode. But they soon surged forward again, throwing rocks at the blocked cars, at the van and at the baton-swinging police.

The hour-long confrontation ended only when several hundred camouflage-clad riot policemen arrived. They waded into the crowd, the workers recalled, firing gas at any cluster of people and grabbing anyone who resisted. Many workers were hit with the black batons, witnesses said, and at least two youths wearing red T-shirts were carted off.

"If you refused to get out of there, they would arrest you, even if you weren't doing anything but standing there," Liu said. To escape the roundup, he hid in a bookstore.

By 11 a.m., the crowd had dispersed. The riot police stood guard to make sure nobody came back. Most of the workers went to find some lunch, then straggled back to their weaving machines in small groups during the afternoon.

Most of those arrested were released by 9 p.m., workers said, after long interrogations by police seeking to determine who had led the strike and who had set fire to the motorcycle. But about 20 remained in custody for weeks, colleagues and relatives said, with no one allowed to visit them or give them money or clothes.

Three of the prisoners -- their heads shaved, manacled hand and foot, wearing gray pajama-like uniforms -- were brought to the factory entrance seven days after the riot and were made to stand there while police took photos, nearby fruit vendors said.

But the workers did not see that episode. By then, they were all back inside weaving sweaters and waiting to see how much they would be paid at the end of June.

The planned June 3 meeting of top managers was never held. But that afternoon, as riot police milled about in the litter-strewn street, a company notice was posted on the factory wall. Managers would review the situation, it pledged, and try to improve pay levels during the slow season.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company