China Outlines Principles for Halting Unrest In Downturn

Local Leaders Must Reach Out To Protesters, Official Counsels

Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 3, 2009; Page A08

BEIJING, Feb. 2 -- A Chinese government official has outlined new principles aimed at stemming the growing unrest triggered by an economic downturn that has left 26 million migrant workers looking for jobs.

In the event of a mass protest, local officials should go to the "front line," not hide behind the police, which only triggers an escalation of conflict, said Chen Xiwen, director of the office of the central leading group on rural work, which advises the Communist Party on agricultural issues.

To lessen the threat to stability, officials must also do more to solve land disputes, environmental problems and resettlement issues before they spiral into demonstrations, Chen said at a news conference Monday. Party leaders have been pressed to show that they care about the countryside, where prices for agricultural products have been falling and where residents are feeling a widening gap between urban and rural incomes that has reached the equivalent of $1,620, $200 more than in 2007.

Demonstrations have broken out across the country recently as citizens protest the lack of compensation after factory closings or following illegal land grabs. There have also been protests about the construction of polluting factories near villages and farmland, corrupt local officials who try to cover up their misdeeds, and illegal investment schemes that officials have failed to shut down.

"If mass incidents happen, all officials must go to the front line and try to persuade people face-to-face," Chen said. "They cannot hide and push police to the front lines. The police cannot be deployed unless there are truly unfortunate situations where people are beating, attacking, robbing or burning."

After any incident, officials must draw lessons from the conflict, punish those responsible and make new plans to improve their work, Chen said.

There are now nearly 20 million unemployed migrant workers, or 15.3 percent of the total 130 million migrant worker population, Chen said. They are competing with the 6 million who enter the migrant worker job market each year, according to figures from a Ministry of Agriculture survey of 150 villages in 15 provinces conducted before the Lunar New Year last week, when most migrant workers return home from cities for the holiday.

Over the past 20 years, farmers have used outside income to supplement their farming income, making as much as 50 to 60 percent of their total pay. But for many farmers "that road is blocked this year," said Xu Yong, director of the Center for Chinese Rural Studies at Central China Normal University. "There is a saying in the countryside that to feed the mouth depends on farming but pocket money comes from outside."

Xu could not say whether protests would increase. "During the Spring Festival, most migrant workers went home and had a rest," he said. "After this, they will hunt for jobs. If they can't find any jobs but stay in the cities, it will be easy to generate conflict and instability. April and May will be the most serious time."

At least some migrant workers are taking the high unemployment rate in stride.

"It's unavoidable that it will be hard to find a job this year," said Deng Hongshu, 43, from Daping village in Kaixian county near the southwestern Chinese city of Chongqing. "I'm prepared for spending six months or more to find a job."

Deng worked in a leather factory in Shenzhen, just north of Hong Kong, until his factory sent everyone home for a long vacation in early December. A migrant worker for more than two decades, Deng made $1,000 in the second half of 2008. But in the past two months, he has already spent half of last year's income. "I always lose one job at the end of one year and find another job in the next year, so I don't worry about it too much," he said.

Researcher Zhang Jie contributed to this report.

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