World in View: China’s migrant revolt

From the new July-August 2011 issue of News & Letters:

World in View

China’s migrant revolt

Thousands of migrant workers exploded onto the streets in the industrial suburb of Zengcheng in Guangdong province and vented their rage for a week. Security forces had thrown to the pavement a 20-year-old pregnant migrant worker from Sichuan, while clearing the street and removing her peddler’s cart.

Migrant workers walked out of factories and demonstrated, burning down government buildings. Police used violence to try to rein in the workers. The state-capitalist regime also demanded from their partners, the owners of factories, that they keep workers locked inside and prevent them from continuing the protests.

Repressing the internet, authorities tried to isolate the migrant workers. They have blocked even the city’s name, Zengcheng, from searches, although they have not been able to stop all cellphone video of the uprising.

Migrant workers from interior provinces like Sichuan are China’s undocumented workers because they lack residence permits for the coastal factory areas where they work. They have been indispensible to the two-decades-long transformation of China into the world’s workshop, which gives them leverage within production that their legal status does not.

It cannot have escaped China’s rulers that the abuse of one peddler in Tunisia, and his public suicide, was the spark for the revolt that began Arab Spring. A sociologist at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University calculated that there were 180,000 mass incidents within China in 2010. That doubles the already remarkable number of strikes, demonstrations and peasant protests each year five to ten years ago, but protests have sharpened in 2011.

China’s rulers fear workers’ revolt, but have also acted strongly against stirrings in strategic border ethnic “autonomous regions”–engineering bloody repression in Tibet and Xinjiang.

But when a Han Chinese truck driver ran down and killed a Mongolian trying to block coal trucks taking shortcuts across the grazing land of Inner Mongolia, the resulting outrage and protest marches of thousands on May 26 were far more threatening.

Inner Mongolia is the chief source of coal for the energy-starved Chinese economy. More importantly it is close to home–the regional capital of Hohhot is barely 100 miles from Beijing. Mongolian rights to life and land became the basis for protests even though Mongolians now make up only one-fifth of the population, overwhelmed by Han Chinese immigration. The numbers of Han Chinese who joined in protest should doubly concern authorities. The government locked down campuses and otherwise disrupted the day of protest of May 31, and hastily sentenced to death the coal truck driver.

–Bob McGuire

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