As China's Jobless Numbers Mount, Protests Grow Bolder

By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 13, 2009

BEIJING -- For months, the Communist Party had been able to deflect anger about factory closings toward the companies themselves. The party managed to come off as the benevolent savior by handing out cash to make up for unpaid salaries. The strategy stopped working at the Jianrong Suitcase Factory in late December.

When offered 60 percent of their wages to disband their protest and go home, the workers pushed back at riot police sent to keep them locked in their factory compound in the southern Chinese city of Dongguan. According to several witnesses, more than 100 irate workers broke through the cordon, some shouting, "There are no human rights here!"

As a global recession takes hold and China's economy continues to slow, growing legions of unemployed workers are becoming increasingly bold in expressing their unhappiness -- expanding a debate over how to protect the Chinese economy into long-fought disputes over other issues such as freedom of expression and equality before the law.

During most of the past two decades, concerns about China's human rights record have been overshadowed by the speed of its economic development and growing political influence in the world.

But as the economic crisis has grown, so, too, have challenges -- both small and large -- to the state's power.

In late November, two men whose village was involved in a dispute over a land deal took ink-filled eggs and desecrated Communist Party and national flags in Chongqing, the largest of China's four provincial-level municipalities, in a protest that copied the infamous defacing of Mao Zedong's portrait in the capital in 1989.

In December, 300 academics and other intellectuals signed a declaration of human rights known as Charter '08 that circulated on the Internet, sending Chinese authorities on a nationwide manhunt for its author.

Labor rights activist Li Qiang said China's economic problems have put the spotlight on social issues that have long existed -- such as the growing gap between the urban rich and the rural poor and the fight for worker rights -- but were played down by the government during the recent boom.

"The crisis in the West is purely economic. But in China it's a huge political problem," said Li, director of the New York-based China Labor Watch.

The ripple effects of the sharp economic downturn are growing: Crime is rising, as are labor strikes by taxi drivers, teachers, factory workers and even investors unhappy that their stock market holdings are now 70 percent off their peak.

Although Chinese authorities have been able to quickly disband the recent protests, there is concern that a single national-level event, if mishandled by authorities, could lead to a serious political crisis.

"Without doubt, we are entering a peak period for mass incidents. In 2009, Chinese society may face even more conflicts and clashes that will test even more the governing abilities of all levels of the party and government," Huang Huo, a reporter for the state-run New China News Agency, warned this month in a magazine published by the news service.

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