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As China's Economy Changes, Labor Unrest Swells - 2002-04-30

A new report from Amnesty International said China's government is using repression, jail and torture to fight growing labor unrest. The report was released on the eve of May Day, China's holiday to honor labor.

State owned companies once provided Chinese workers with modest wages and cradle-to-grave social care. But China's shift from a Communist economy to a more market-oriented one is forcing the closure of poorly managed state owned firms, leaving millions of people out of work.

Amnesty International Researcher Dominique Muller has said laid-off Chinese workers are angry because employers have not paid wages, pensions or severance pay the employees feel they have earned. Some enraged workers have taken to the streets, blaming poor management or corrupt officials for their problems.

"There is massive and widespread labor unrest throughout China. There's protest occurring almost every week and in some cases almost daily in many, many different provinces throughout China. The trend seems to be an increase in protest not only of workers, but also of peasants," Ms. Muller said.

China's Foreign Ministry spokesman dismissed this and all other Amnesty International reports as irresponsible, inaccurate lies.

Ms. Muller said only the government-approved trade union is allowed in China and its subservience to the government makes it an ineffective voice for raising workers' grievances.

Chinese officials routinely deal with labor protests by negotiating a settlement that offers partial payment for overdue wages and benefits. But Ms. Muller said for years the government has been waging a brutal campaign of repression against labor activists. She said some have been beaten or sentenced to long prison terms in order to intimidate others.

"The Chinese authorities look upon the scale of work protest and the actual number of workers out on the street as something that is potentially very dangerous; whether or not it is a real danger remains to be seen. But the provincial and central authorities view it as a major, major concern," Ms. Muller said.

So far, most demonstrations have focused on specific local grievances, such as poor working conditions or unpaid wages. What Beijing fears most, Ms. Muller said, is labor turning into a well-organized, political force strong enough to challenge the government.

To keep labor unrest in check, Chinese officials are banning news coverage of strikes in state-controlled media and detaining foreign reporters who try to cover demonstrations.

In a report of its own, the government recently admitted the country is facing growing unemployment as more bloated, inefficient state companies succumb to competition and close down, throwing millions of people out of work.

The report from China's State Council (Cabinet) said the country is focusing on boosting employment through economic growth, and calls for greater effort to educate and retrain workers for future jobs.