A leading economist yesterday called on the government to put an end to special treatment for state workers and address growing unemployment among the mainland's urban workforce. Hu Angang, a professor at Tsinghua University's Centre for the Study of China, claimed that urban unemployment was 8.5 per cent - nearly three times the official figure of 3.6 per cent - and warned that job creation was the biggest challenge facing the government. Workers laid off from state companies receive the best treatment among the unemployed, with three years at re-employment centres followed by three years of minimum living allowance, because of the high status accorded to them by the Communist Party. Professor Hu said China should follow the example of foreign countries and give equal treatment to all the unemployed, whether they were laid off from state firms, collectives or private companies or were formerly farmers. The government has promised to hold a national meeting this year on the issue of employment and is divided on whether this should concentrate on state workers or all workers. 'My proposal is that it should consider all the workers,' Professor Hu said. 'It should look at work in the broadest way, both permanent jobs and temporary work, from state workers to those who work on construction sites or sweep the streets.' Professor Hu was one of 12 economists who met Premier Zhu Rongji in Zhongnanhai on June 24 to discuss the problems of the economy. Earlier this year workers laid off by a state oil company in Daqing, Heilongjiang province, held weeks of protests against the terms of their redundancy, which were by mainland terms generous, with payments of more than 100,000 yuan (HK$94,000) each. 'I fear the impact of the protests at Daqing. They had a big negative impact,' Professor Hu said. According to labour rights groups abroad, such protests occur regularly on the mainland, especially in traditional industrial cities in the northeast and northwest where there is little alternative employment. The official press rarely reports these protests. Mr Hu put the unemployment rate in the three provinces of the northeast at more than 10 per cent. The Communist Party has traditionally regarded unrest in the industrial working class as the biggest threat to its power base and therefore treated it better than other classes, pointing to the example of labour unrest destabilising governments in Eastern Europe. Professor Hu said that since 1995 China had effected a 'peaceful revolution', laying off 55 million people - twice the working population of France - without major social upheaval as it made the transformation to a market economy. The job cuts came from traditional manufacturing and state institutions, such as hospitals, schools and government departments. 'As China changes towards the world economy, all homes are touched by the competition for jobs in this employment war. 'Permanent jobs are shrinking as more work is contracted out. More jobs are flexible, under contract and part-time,' Mr Hu said. He said that each year 10 million to 15 million farmers left the land to look for work in the cities. Such migrant labourers played a vital role in economic growth in the cities where they worked, he said, and in sending money back to the poor areas they came from.