CHENGDU, CHINA -- The Jiuyan Bridge in Chengdu is a meeting ground for China's new outcasts -- dispossessed farmers, unemployed factory workers, transients and, on occasion, criminals and prostitutes.
The Chinese authorities watch this ragtag army of drifters carefully, wary that the growing population of economically disadvantaged citizens could provide the next major threat to the country's stability.
Rioting that erupted in Chengdu last June in reaction to the army's massacre of demonstrators in Beijing was carried out by disaffected workers and unemployed youths, not student protesters. And some of the rioters came from outside this southwestern provincial capital.
Chengdu saw more violence and bloodshed than any city other than Beijing during the upheavals that occurred throughout China last spring.
Rioters attacked government buildings, destroyed vehicles and burned down a huge department store. At least eight people were killed in clashes with police, but some sources said the death toll was much higher. The government executed three peasants for burning and looting.
Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan, the country's most populous province. It is an inland province bordering on Tibet that has a long history of isolation from Beijing, the political center of China.
Unemployment levels in Chengdu have risen as the government's 1 1/2-year-old austerity program has drastically cut industrial production while sharply reducing price inflation.
One might suspect that the economic conditions have raised tensions in this provincial capital once again to the boiling point. But police repression, a traditional fear of instability and a habit of yielding to authority, ingrained over centuries, are combining to limit the possibility of a new outbreak of unrest in Chengdu, as in other Chinese cities.
An unauthorized labor market located next to the Jiuyan (Nine Eyes) Bridge stands as a reminder of the nation's longer-range social and economic difficulties. One recent morning, the market, which formed on a vacant lot, was filled with several hundred young men and women from rural areas and towns who had flocked to Chengdu to seek work.
"The government has tried to restrict the flow of peasants into the city but has not completely succeeded," said one Chengdu resident.
Chengdu police clear the market from time to time, but the job seekers, job peddlers and con artists return nearly as soon as the police leave. The government apparently has decided not to close this job market permanently, because it offers a safety valve for those not employed within the state sector of the Chinese economy.
China now openly admits that it has an unemployment problem, created in part by unrelenting population growth and the economic austerity program, which has closed hundreds of thousands of rural factories.
Officials acknowledge an unemployment rate of 4 percent of the urban labor force, but most independent observers say the actual rate is much higher.
Sichuan farm workers have a reputation for accepting hard work at low wages. Over the years, many have traveled to other provinces seeking work, particularly in the construction industry. They form what is popularly known as the "Sichuan Army" of more than a half-million men.
Many are now returning home, forced out of their construction jobs in other provinces by the austerity drive and a ban on many new building projects.
"They worked very hard and now they feel helpless," said a man at the bridge, who came into Chengdu recently from a rural county to hire workers. Those he hires are among the fortunate ones.
At Jiuyan Bridge, the most fortunate of the job seekers find work repairing bicycles or working as waiters and waitresses in Chengdu restaurants that serve peppery Sichuan food.
The least fortunate are usually women. They are the last to be hired, often because they are considered to be less effective workers than men.
According to a Chengdu resident, an undetermined number of women who come to the bridge seeking a new life have been lured to the countryside on the promise of a good job. There, they are abducted and sold as wives to farmers. The Chinese press reported a case last fall in which two men were sentenced to death in Chengdu for abducting women. Apparently the practice persists.
A year ago, university students in Chengdu gained much support from city residents and some of the outcasts here by protesting against corruption among government and Communist Party officials.
Although the Chinese government has regularly claimed success in combating corruption within the party, nearly everyone among a wide range of persons informally interviewed in Chengdu said the problem is endemic within the system.
Several persons representing different classes of society in Chengdu, including a relatively well-to-do construction team boss and a near-destitute vegetable vendor, expressed dissatisfaction with the corruption and with their Communist Party overlords.
All said they sympathized with the student activists last spring but did not join in the street demonstrations. They said they were still reluctant to rebel directly against the system.
Amid last year's upheaval in China, little was said about city dwellers such as these -- people who do not rebel, who consider politics not only of secondary importance but also dangerous, and to whom economic welfare means everything.
The construction team boss strongly criticized the corruption, which he said still was pervasive.
He said that in his county near Chengdu, many people strongly resent the Communist Party cadres and the special privileges they enjoy.
"Every day, the cadres eat their fill," he said. "They can get free meals in restaurants. . . . They take what they want."
But the construction supervisor himself enjoys a fairly good living by Chinese standards. He said he owes his success to working within the system, slipping money in small envelopes to the right cadres. He said that rather than join the students in voicing dissatisfaction with the government last year, he chose instead to keep working and making money.
At the bottom of the unacknowledged class system in Chengdu are the unemployed, or underemployed. A factory worker who lost his job and now makes less than 50 cents a day selling vegetables says he has "done every dirty job there is to do" in Chengdu.
"I've done the jobs no one else wanted to do," said the man, who asked not to be identified.
Now 35 and a father of a 3-year-old, the man has tried repairing bicycles, selling eels and laboring with a pick and shovel. His wife once turned to stealing clothing to help the family, he said.
One of his least promising jobs was to recruit prostitutes for a procurer who has since been sent to jail.
He said his greatest success was in repairing bicycles, but others became jealous of his earnings and threatened him. Two unemployed youths came to his rescue in a fistfight but their offer of permanent "protection" became a curse. Whenever the man made money, the two showed up to collect meals and drinks.
His greatest blessing, aside from his family, is a single, sparsely outfitted, 6-by-12-foot room that he and his wife share near the river. It was provided by relatives.
Would this man, who has so little to lose, take to the streets to support student demonstrators? His answer is an unqualified no.
"Most Chinese are afraid of the government," he said. "When you have a wife and child, you're afraid."