With Strikes, China's New Middle Class Increasingly Expressing Discontent

By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 17, 2008

CHONGQING, China -- When 9,000 of Shin Guoqing's fellow taxi drivers went on strike early last month, he felt he had to join them.

Soaring inflation had undermined what his $300-a-month income could buy for his family, and Shin said he was frustrated that the government had done nothing to help. "After running around the whole day, you have only a few renminbi for it," he said, referring to China's currency. "You don't feel good about your life."

For two days, the drivers held this Sichuan province metropolis of 31 million people under siege, blocking roads and smashing cars. The Communist Party quickly stopped the violence by promising to address the drivers' demands for easier access to fuel and better working conditions.

From the far western industrial county of Yongdeng to the southern resort city of Sanya and the commercial center of Guangzhou, members of China's upwardly mobile working class -- taxi drivers, teachers, factory workers and even auxiliary police officers -- have mounted protests since the Chongqing strike, refusing to work until their demands were met.

China's government has long feared the rise of labor movements, banning unauthorized unions and arresting those who speak out for workers' rights. The strikes, driven in part by China's economic downturn, have caught officials off guard.

Rural protests, often led by impoverished farmers angry over land seizures that leave them unable to feed their families, have occurred sporadically over the past decade. But richer, more educated Chinese are behind the recent strikes, which have disrupted life in China's cities. The success achieved by the drivers in Chongqing has inspired work stoppages elsewhere.

Urban workers say they are worried about being unable to pay for their children's college education, missing payments on car loans, and not having enough money left each month to dine out with friends or go on vacation.

In the past 30 years of economic liberalization, younger Chinese have come to see these things not as a luxury of modern life but as a right.

In the central province of Hunan on Dec. 2, more than 100 auxiliary police officers seized control of a Communist Party office in Leiyang county and demanded that the government reinstate a bonus it had taken away after the Olympics. According to the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy, the group smashed chairs and did not allow anyone to enter or leave the building for three hours. Tan Caiyu, a municipal official, said in an interview that the government is considering raising the auxiliary officers' salaries as a result.

That same week, more than 1,000 teachers in neighboring Longhui county went on strike over unpaid allowances. The teachers accused the local government of misappropriating 400 million yuan, or about $60 million, over the past 10 years.

In other places, such as the inland province of Shaanxi and in northeastern Liaoning province, teachers protested because they said they deserved to be paid as much as other government employees with the same experience.

In Gansu province's Yongdeng county, taxi drivers said their income had fallen because of the rising number of illegal taxis that the government had allowed to proliferate. Chen Yongshun, 44, who like many other taxi drivers across the country fell into his job when his state-owned factory closed, said that he has a child who will go to college next year and that he needs to make sure he will be able to afford the tuition.

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