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China Moves to Stem Unemployment - 2003-03-12

China's top labor official says the country's unemployment problem is grim, but the government is trying to help the jobless. His comments came shortly after an unemployed man claiming to have a bomb held several journalists hostage in Beijing. China's leaders feel they must act quickly, to prevent more frustrated workers from striking out.

Zhang Zuoji, the minister of labor and social security, said it is not surprising that some people who have lost their jobs resort to extreme measures to express their frustration. Mr. Zhang told reporters he does not know why an unemployed man who said he had a bomb took several journalists hostage earlier Wednesday. He said the case is being investigated.

The man released the hostages unharmed and was arrested.

Mr. Zhang said the government is trying to ease the pain caused by the rising unemployment rate as China shifts from a planned economy to a free market system.

Beijing is speeding up efforts to help laid-off workers find jobs and to strengthen the social security system. Unemployment has been high on the agenda for the National People's Congress, now holding its annual legislative session.

Labor unrest is rising in China, with worker protests occurring most often in the industrial northeast. The government is eager to prevent any rise in social instability, which could threaten the Communist Party's control of the country.

More than 27 million people have been laid off from unprofitable state enterprises over the past five years. Those statistics do not include 150 million jobless in the countryside, or some 100 million migrants hunting jobs in the cities.

Labor Minister Zhang says the government is trying to balance the pace of market reforms and layoffs with the need to preserve social stability. He said it has directed state enterprises to avoid large layoffs in the same area at the same time, and to find new jobs for laid-off workers whenever possible.