Labour protests are becoming an everyday occurrence on the mainland, but so far social stability has been maintained. There have not been any large-scale uprisings by laid-off workers. So just how serious is the mainland's unemployment problem? While the official urban unemployment rate is 3.6 per cent, most economists estimate the real figure is at least 10 per cent. Assuming the working population is 500 to 600 million, this means there is an army of 50 to 60 million unemployed adults, raising the issue of how the government can maintain social stability. Such questions were discussed at a conference at the Chinese University of Hong Kong last week. About two dozen researchers and scholars from China, Hong Kong, France and Germany attended the two-day event, entitled 'State Reform and Social Stability in China'. One explanation given for the absence of widespread unrest was that the government had become more tactful in dealing with public protests. Officials, generally, had become more tolerant. Another reason protests had not been more serious was that many laid-off workers had been able to make a living from temporary jobs while others had become self-employed, said Professor Li Qiang, of Beijing's Tsinghua University. In certain small cities, some had become urban farmers by utilising small plots in their backyards, he added. But while many laid-off people had found new sources of income, few described themselves as employed, Professor Li said. Although these temporary jobs often paid poorly, they did keep the problem from worsening. 'This is especially true in the northeast provinces, where workers believe being employed means you have a permanent job, belong to a work unit and enjoy all sorts of benefits,' he said. Professor Li separated analyses of the labour situation into two categories - the 'iceberg' and 'fortress' theories. The first views the labour protests as just the tip of the iceberg. With China's entry to the World Trade Organisation, more social unrest will erupt. The 'fortress' analysis argues that labour unrest is unlikely to worsen. Proponents of this theory say the protests that broke out in March and April in the oil city of Daqing in Heilongjiang province involving tens of thousands of workers were the worst labour protests the mainland is likely to see. 'They call it the 'fortress theory' because the Daqing oil field is like a fortress for China's industry. If the protests in Daqing did not lead to a disaster, then nothing will,' Professor Li explained. Unlike the protests of earlier decades that involved political ideals such as democracy, he noted, the current unrest revolved around more practical matters such as pensions. Another conference participant, Jean-Louis Rocca, of Centre d'Etudes et de Recherches Internationales in Beijing, said laid-off workers from state-owned enterprises might actually be better off than migrant workers who left the countryside in search of jobs in the cities. Mr Rocca said the laid-off workers usually continued to enjoy some form of benefit while they took on part-time jobs. But migrant workers - who some economists number at more than 100 million - are largely left to their own devices and face all kinds of discrimination ranging from denial of benefits such as health care and education to expulsion from cities. Professor Li said another difficulty China faced was rural poverty. He warned that farmers' incomes had stagnated and they were earning much less than city dwellers. But a situation in which farmers and workers have become worse off raises two serious issues for the government. First, the relationship between the Communist Party and the proletariat has changed forever. The party can no longer claim itself to be the vanguard of the working class and the peasants, and needs to search for a new identity. Second, with more working adults relying on themselves instead of the authorities, how can the party maintain its influence in an increasingly pluralistic Chinese society?