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This Is Why A Huge Protest May Just Be The Beginning Of China's Problems

The strike was only ended after the company gave in to the strikers' demands. But with at least 5 million layoffs of state workers on the horizon, more protests may be coming.

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A massive miners' protest that has lasted for nearly a week in China's far northeastern province has been temporarily suspended after the demonstrators finally received two to three months of backpay.

Heilongjiang coal miners’ strike continues into sixth day https://t.co/Gyncig5fmQ

Several family members BuzzFeed News was able to reach said the miners in Shuangyashan, Heilongjiang province, were back at work by Monday. But the workers have not been informed just if and when they will receive the rest of the arrears from Longmay Group, a state-owned mining company with 240,000 employees.

"[The arrears] haven't been fully paid, we got 2200 yuan ($337) for two months' wages...[the company] still owes us half a year equivalence of arrears," a family member of one of the miners, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid any backlash, told BuzzFeed News on Weibo.

The protests were sparked in part by Lu Hao, 49, the governor of Heilongjiang and the youngest provincial governor in China. Or more specifically, by Lu's boasts at a high-level political meeting.

China Stringer Network / Reuters

Lu was speaking at the "two sessions," the nation's top annual political meetings, when he said on March 6 that Longmay Group, the largest coal-mining group in the province, had not withheld or lowered miners' salaries despite heavy financial losses.

The meetings were simultaneously broadcast in Heilongjiang, where 80,000 miners have been waiting for "at least some living expenses," a fact Lu neglected to mention. Only after the strike began did Lu admit that he'd given a misleading account of the miners' plight.

“We must thoroughly absorb the lessons of collecting and reporting inaccurate information,” Lu said.

The protesters' aims were simple. Miners held white banners saying "we want to live, we need to eat." Others scorned the governor: "Lu Hao talking nonsense with eyes open."

好伤心。今天的双鸭山。刚才看到微博上说,这些矿工只有少得可怜的800元月薪,还被拖了几个月。不过我觉得比工资少更可怕的是当地基本只有单一产业煤矿,以至于连转行都没出路。煤价高的时候,一切都很风光,一旦煤卖不动了,情况就会很糟糕。

Armed police were sent into the depressed industrial town of Shuangyashan during the protest and according to the Financial Times, at least 75 “criminals” whose faces had been photographed in the crowds are now wanted, while many of the organizers were detained over the past weekend.

“It didn't get resolved. The police came in so the strike couldn't continue,” Geoffrey Crothall, communications director of China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based labor rights NGO, told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview.

Stringer Shanghai / Reuters

There might be more protests in the future, he added. The organization has mapped 769 workers' strikes in China from the beginning of 2016. The map may only record 10% of the overall strikes, says Crothall, since occasionally released official documents give a much bigger number.

It's up in the air whether any future protests will receive more coverage than the strike in Heilongjiang, which has been virtually absent from Chinese reporting. (Chinese media have been ordered to strictly control negative reporting during the "two sessions," according to a leaked document circulating online.)

Despite the police presence, the protests continued until the backpay was deposited. "Thank you Governor Lu, [I] got my wages, now I can have some barbecue," a user posted on Baidu, showing off a picture of grilled fish, boiled beans, and beers.

But the problem is only likely to get worse over the coming years.

According to Reuters, China aims to lay off 5 to 6 million state workers over the next two to three years "as part of efforts to curb industrial overcapacity and pollution." Heilongjiang, together with Jinlin and Liaoning, generally known as the Northeast in China, used to be praised as "the first son of the republic," meaning that their contribution to China's industrialization in the early years was immense.

The state-controlled Global Times published an editorial on Tuesday calling for "joint support from other regions" to help the Northeast to "revitalize its economy and highlight local people's wellbeing" because "the region itself will find it hard to cope with the troubles."

The country has recently promised to give out a total of 100 billion yuan ($16 billion) to 1.8 million coal and steel workers as part of an unemployment fund, which is rounded to 5,500 yuan (less than $1,000) for an average worker.

It's quite the reversal for China's workers, who — together with farmers — used to be the most privileged class of people in the early stages of socialist China.

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"We build high-rises, we build railroads, we change the world in and out," went the famous revolutionary song "We Workers Have Strength."

Beimeng Fu is a BuzzFeed News World Reporter covering China and is based in New York.

Contact Beimeng Fu at beimeng.fu@buzzfeed.com.

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