Laid - Off Chinese Protest en Masse



      March 18, 2002

      Laid - Off Chinese Protest en Masse


      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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