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From stthomas@midway.uchicago.edu Mon Jun 12 16:16:27 2000
Date: Sun, 11 Jun 2000 22:52:50 -0500 (CDT)
From: Saul Thomas <stthomas@midway.uchicago.edu>
Subject: news: Chinese protesters hit the streets demanding government attention
Article: 98157
To: undisclosed-recipients:;

Chinese protesters hit the streets demanding government attention

AFP, 11 June 2000

SHENYANG - Gingerly walking up the street lugging their tiny wooden stools and wooden canes, two elderly women hardly look like trouble for the Chinese government.

But they had just caused a two-hour traffic jam in their neighborhood in the northeastern city of Shenyang, to protest against a water cut.

They are among a growing number of Chinese people who are taking their grievances onto the streets, blocking traffic, highways and even railway tracks.

I used to think protests happened only in other countries, but now they're happening right in front of me, said Wang Rui, a 24-year-old whose northeastern province of Liaoning has seen some of China's worst outbreaks of unrest.

So common are street demonstrations that radio stations in Liaoning's capital, Shenyang, alert motorists to man-made roadblocks almost every morning, taxi drivers said.

China's entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO), possibly later this year, will intensify the problem as more people lose their jobs when state-owned companies, unable to compete with foreign ones, shut down.

The most common type of protesters are unpaid pensioners or workers who have been left without their only source of income when their state-owned companies collapsed, as the country moves towards a market economy.

People who lost money from investment schemes or were forced to relocate to make way for construction projects make up other types of demonstrators.

Afraid to stick their necks out in the past, Chinese people now see public demonstrations as the only way to get the government's attention.

The government is facing a dilemma. These people have no political agenda and they have no leaders. It is of no use to arrest them. That would cause even more unrest, said Frank Lu, director of the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy.

Police officers rarely use force against demonstrators, resorting to persuasion to disperse them. They are sympathetic as the police often have relatives suffering from the same problems.

Last year, the number of demonstrations reported to the central government reached 100,000 nationwide -- about 270 a day -- up nearly 70 percent from the previous year, according to internal information leaked to the information center.

The actual figure is believed to be far greater as protests in rural areas often go unreported.

Exorbitant taxes, fines for having too many children or land disputes have also driven many peasants to march on government offices to air their complaints.

It's going to get worse after WTO. Farmers have been kept in the dark about WTO, but when overseas fruits flood in and they can no longer sell their products at the markets, they'll know, Lu said.

In a sign of how serious the problem has become, China's cabinet, the State Council, announced Friday that pensions and unemployment compensation must be paid on time and in full and that companies or local governments would be investigated for any violations.

China is still able to control the situation at the moment. But if something like the Asian financial crisis or a depression hits China, it's going to have a huge effect because people are bolder now, Lu said.

In the biggest case of unrest in years, more than 20,000 miners and their families in Liaoning fought police for three days in February, angry over the small compensation they would receive from the closure of their bankrupt mine.

They burned cars and blocked a railway line.

The protest was quelled only after armed police came in and fired shots into the air.

Last month, 5,000 steel workers in Liaoning's Liaoyang city, who had not been paid for over a year, blocked a highway to the provincial capital. They dispersed only after officials agreed to pay them three months' salary.

Those protest made headlines but many smaller protests also occur across China.

In Beijing recently, parents angered that their children could not get into an elite school after classes were unexpectedly cancelled blocked a nearby street with their cars for several days, a source said.

Many protesters are retired, 60 or older -- and police cannot touch them.

The two elderly women who protested the water cut, along with 500 families from their housing block, went without water for 10 days because the money they paid to a state-owned company for water bills went missing.

They held empty plastic water bottles and signs that read we need to drink water as they sat on stools blocking four sides of a busy intersection to highlight their plight.

If we don't get any water tomorrow, we'll go out there again, one of the women said.