Cracks in economic miracle becoming harder to ignore

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 December, 2011, 12:00am

Rumblings of discontent are starting to echo across the Yangtze River Delta. Dissatisfaction and frustration seem to be bubbling up among the worker bees who keep the world's factory ticking.

A pattern of strikes that began in the south of the country appears to have spread to the mainland's other industrial heartland.

In Nanjing, disgruntled sanitation workers heaped refuse in the streets last month in protest at low pay and unpaid performance bonuses. Just over a week later, scores of workers blockaded a Tesco supermarket in Jinhua, Zhejiang, that was to be closed down. They were worried the Britain-based chain might shut up shop before the announced date without paying their overtime.

At the start of this month, more labour disputes flared up in Shanghai and in Taicang, in neighbouring Jiangsu, and there were rumours of other walkouts in nearby Suzhou.

On Thursday, hundreds more rallied outside a bankrupt furniture factory in Anji, Zhejiang, demanding back pay.

Viewed individually, the strikes don't amount to an awful lot. A few hundred picketers here or a few thousand workers downing tools there is a drop in the ocean in a nation of 1.3 billion people.

But with the mainland's economic indicators taking an unexpected plunge at the close of the year (the drop was expected but not the severity) and the euro zone looking near-terminal, there is a growing feeling these events are a prelude to bigger things to come.

Across executive lunch tables and in the watering holes of Shanghai, the consensus is that the coming months are going to be increasingly tight and that the little guy is not going to be happy about it.

Much more significant than the disputes themselves, however, is the government's response. At the strike this week in Shanghai, where workers have been protesting against a planned relocation of a Singaporean-owned electronics factory, the police presence was bristling. On Monday afternoon, three police vans were parked outside the plant, packed with dozens of uniformed officers and menacing-looking men in scruffy plain clothes. At least 10 of the strikers were detained when the authorities moved in to break the picket line the next morning. Witnesses said more than 200 officers were involved in the raid.

Short videos of the strike this correspondent uploaded onto a Sina Weibo microblog disappeared within minutes, apparently having been 'harmonised' by the internet censors. The website sent a message stating the content of the clips - showing a crowd of factory workers talking back to their bosses and airing their grievances - broke house rules but gave no specific reasons.

Computer searches for the strike locations - both real and rumoured - via a mainland server this week resulted in the Google website freezing and becoming 'locked out' for several minutes at a time. That is the standard outcome when hunting for information the government deems sensitive.

And of course the strikes went unreported in local media.

This determination to suppress news of even minor labour disputes says much about the authorities' fears of social unrest breaking out in a tough economic climate.

To the outsider, it looks like overkill. But it is not entirely without reason. Strikes can be contagious, spreading like spores in the wind, and public sentiment at the moment is rich soil for resentment.

In the course of its economic reforms, the mainland has pulled millions of households out of poverty and pulled off an unprecedented transformation that is truly mind-boggling in its scale. But this has come at a price.

Tens of millions of people have literally put their lives on hold in order to achieve that. They travel halfway across a country the size of a continent to take menial jobs and sleep in cramped dormitories, separated from their families except once or possibly twice a year.

All this, viewed from the factory floor, has so far been based on the promise of jam tomorrow. Many are starting to think they deserve a slightly larger serving today.

There has been a tangible shift in the public mood at the grass-roots level in just the past two years. Placating that resentment without alienating the newly rich who are unprepared for their net worth going anywhere but up is shaping up to be one of the top challenges for the leadership in the coming year.


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