Laid - Off Chinese Protest en Masse
March 18, 2002
Laid - Off Chinese Protest en Masse
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Filed at 1:54 p.m. ET
DAQING, China (AP) -- Mao Tse-tung immortalized this oil town's spirit
with a slogan: ``In industry, learn from Daqing.'' But the lessons of late
have been harsh: Since 1999, the Daqing Petroleum Administration has laid
off 86,000 of its roughly 260,000 workers.
Every working day this month, thousands of former employees have gathered
in the numbing cold outside the company's 40-story headquarters to do
something extraordinary for China: protest -- and demand a hearing with
Their numbers have swelled to as many as 50,000 some days, prompting
officials to dispatch military police to block the gates and haul away a
half-dozen organizers, they said.
Such protests have become almost daily occurrences across industrial
China, where millions of workers have lost jobs at debt-ridden and
inefficient state companies.
Yet, few here thought it would ever happen to Daqing, a sprawling company
town of 2.4 million people built by and for the oil industry, 600 miles
northeast of Beijing.
Once hailed as a model of fortitude and self-sufficiency, the tale of how
Chinese engineers defied freezing temperatures with little shelter to
drill Daqing's first wells in 1960 is a staple of communist propaganda.
Inspired by the slogans, a worker name Cai left his home in the lush
southwestern province of Sichuan 32 years ago to join the ranks of the
``vanguard of the proletariat'' -- China's blue collar elite -- in Daqing.
Now, he says, slogans are all he has left. Laid off from an oil field
pumping station, he despairs at spending his old age in poverty, a
casualty of China's push to reform decrepit state industries.
``They cut you off and you can die and they won't care,'' said Cai, who
did not want his full name used. His deeply lined face made him appear
much older than his 51 years.
Workers said they were offered a lump sum settlement in return for
releasing the company from any future responsibilities to them, a form of
settlement known in China as ``pay-and-cut.'' Cai said he received
$16,900, equal to about six years' salary.
Cai said his settlement will be eaten up within the year by bills that
have skyrocketed since he lost company subsidies for heating, housing and
health care. He and others say employers wouldn't look twice at workers of
their advanced age and that, anyway, there is no other work in Daqing.
Some blame China's stern-willed premier, Zhu Rongji, saying he
specifically ordered that Daqing endure its share of the layoff pain
affecting virtually all state industries. Many say corruption and abuse of
power are rife among the silent company managers whose chauffeured cars
pass through guarded back gates.
``Those guys up there got rid of us to give themselves annual bonuses
equal to our entire life's earnings,'' said Gao, another ex-worker who
declined to give his first name.
Smoking cheap cigarettes and sipping bitter tea, several thousand
ex-workers milled around a larger-than-life bronze statue of Wang Jinxi, a
legendary drilling crew chief. Known as the ``iron man,'' he put the first
well into production and was made a national model worker.
``They call us the masters of the country, but we're nothing to them,''
said Li Xin, a former oil derrick repairman in a tattered leather jacket.
``These problems are all caused by corruption in the Communist Party.
There is no such thing as human rights in China.''
Daqing officials said the protests were peaceful, were caused by a
misunderstanding that would soon be resolved and that police were not
interfering because the matter was an internal one for the company that
runs the oil field.
Not all in Daqing are suffering. It, like other cities, has its blatantly
large gap between rich and poor.
Plump men in Western suits cruise the broad streets in Mercedes sedans.
The tea shop in the city's only three-star hotel is packed with couples
sipping expensive brews and talking on cell phones.
But heavily made-up young women also loiter at doorways of neon-lit
karaoke bars and bored, unwashed men who scrounge a living pedaling
bicycle taxis wait for passengers outside shabby apartment blocks.
China's leaders acknowledge that urban poverty and unemployment could
foster unrest, but are still years away from erecting an effective social
security net. China's entry in the World Trade Organization in December
promises more pain as industries collapse under foreign competition in
more open markets.
Beijing's strategy appears rooted in preventing disgruntled workers from
linking up and adopting a political agenda. Independent labor groups are
banned, organizers arrested and word of protests -- including those in
Daqing -- scrupulously kept out of the entirely state-controlled media.
Yet demonstrations continue. At the same time as the Daqing protest, some
6,000 workers from a half-dozen bankrupt factories marched in the northern
city of Liaoyang to demand the sacking of the local legislature's
Workers there were planning even bigger demonstrations, including cutting
the railway to Beijing, a Hong Kong-based group, the Information Center
for Human Rights and Democracy, said Monday. It said authorities arrested
a protest leader, Yao Fuxin, Sunday and were searching for 18 others.
A Liaoyang police spokeswoman, who gave only her surname, Liu, said there
was another protest on Monday, but refused to give details. The rights
center said 30,000 marched through the city and surrounded police
headquarters to demand the release of protest organizer Yao.
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