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China’s angry young migrants
The 150,000 or more protests each year in China are generally caused by local complaints – from requisitioning of land by local authorities to bad behaviour by the police, from bus fares to polluting factories. But a more widespread threat to the social stability which the regime so prizes is posed by second-generation migrant workers.
Second-class citizens. Their parents were passive as they left their villages in search of higher earnings in factories mainly in the south-east coastal regions. Their remittances boosted village incomes and eventually they returned home, to open small businesses or return to farming. Their children, on the other hand, have little connection with the rural world. They have no experience of farming and little desire to live in a village in the hinterland. They were brought up in manufacturing centres but, as second-class citizens there, they are denied rights to state education and health care and not allowed to buy property.
Town sealed off. Not surprisingly, their resentment often spills over into violence. In one of the most recent incidents last week in Shaxi township in Zhongshan city in Guangdong, hundreds of migrants took to the streets in rioting that is reported to have injured 30 people. According to Chinese websites, migrants moved in from neighbouring areas to join the rioting and overwhelmed the local police before the town was sealed off by riot squads. (Photograph below)
The local railway station was set ablaze and the town hall damaged, the online reports say. Cars were attacked indiscriminately. Two police vehicles and five ambulances were vandalized. All shops and restaurants shut. Some local residents posted online messages complaining that the migrant workers from Sichuan were upsetting public order. Several expressed regret at having made donations for victims of the huge 2008 Sichuan earthquake, according to the South China Morning Post.
Thief’s car. Often the spark that sets off such violence is quite minor. In the case of Shaxi, it escalated after police broke up a fight between two boys. A big riot by migrants a year ago in the jeans-making town of Zengcheng in which government offices were set ablaze flared up after police hustled a pregnant migrant hawker away from her selling site.
But migrant workers are not the only ones to take to the streets. Rioting last week in Zuotan township in the Guangdong city of Foshan was ignited by residents’ frustration at local government corruption and a dispute over land between government officials and villagers. A photograph in Caijing magazine showed a banner reading “Thief’s car” draped across an overturned police car. In clashes with security forces, protesters overturned and smashed police cars while Caijing reported that “many people” were taken to hospital including an 81-year-old veteran of the Korean War who was beaten unconscious.
Political response. Though local authorities generally react by sending in the riot squads, some politicians acknowledge the need to shape social policies to cope with the anger of second-generation migrant workers. Wang Yang, the Communist Party Secretary of Guangdong, is among them, and he marked himself out by supervising a negotiated settlement to the dispute late last year in which the village of Wukan cut itself off and operated in quasi-autonomy. A protest leader was elected as village chief this spring and officials whose land grab led to the trouble have been punished. But the problem goes beyond piecemeal solutions. So long as China maintains the hukou registration system that ties benefits to a person’s homeplace, an undercurrent of resentment will exacerbate the social fault lines bred by economic growth.
In Sichuan, an estimated 10,000 people stormed local government buildings and smashed police cars in the city of Shifang this week as they protested at plans for a copper alloy project they fear will poison them. Thousands of riot police were sent in to deal with the protest which went on for three days. Reuters reported that at least 13 people were hurt when police used teargas to disperse demonstrators. The Ming Pao newspaper in Hong Kong said a high school student had died.