China drives road through social unrest

By Patti Waldmeir in Shanghai

Published: June 21 2011 18:21 | Last updated: June 21 2011 18:21

When Shanghai authorities set out in April to resolve a lorry drivers’ strike that had disrupted trade for days at China’s largest port, they employed carrot and stick tactics.

First, the municipal government administered a few strategic beatings to strikers. Then it came in with the cash. The authorities called on container shipping centres to cancel or lower fees that had prompted the protest, including charges for unloading containers, road tolls and higher prices for night loading.

Finally, they made sure no one in China knew what had happened. A while later, some of the strike leaders were arrested.

Several weeks on, the drivers still grumble about the high fuel prices, tolls and other fees they face.

“It’s meaningless,” a gap-toothed Henan province driver said of the deal as he squatted beside his rig in Baoshan, northern Shanghai. His voice dropping to a whisper as a security guard lurked, he said the logistics company he worked for had cut his pay to claw back fee concessions – leaving him no better off than before. But if the drivers are not happy, neither are they restive and, at a time when social unrest in southern China’s manufacturing hub of Guangdong province is making headlines, Beijing may well see the Shanghai strike as a minor triumph.

Fuelled in part by soaring diesel costs, the strike was the closest thing to an anti-inflation protest that has broken out in China this year amid steep price rises.

COAL FEUDS

A court in China’s vast northern region of Inner Mongolia has sentenced to death a coal mine worker for killing a resident who had complained about pollution,writes Reuters in Beijing.

The sentence was the second in a matter of weeks involving Inner Mongolia’s crucial coal sector, as the government tries to get tough on an industry whose pollution has ignited public anger but fuels the economy.

Sun Shuning was convicted of murdering Yan Wenlong after “a dispute over pollution caused by a coal mine”, where Sun worked, the official Xinhua news agency said on Tuesday.

Sun killed Wen with his forklift, the report added.

Earlier this month, a court in the same part of Inner Mongolia ordered the execution of a man for murdering an ethnic Mongolian herder who had also protested against coal mine pollution, a killing that set off days of rare protests. The death also sparked demonstrations by ethnic minority Mongolians demanding better protection of their rights and traditions.

Beijing, ever worried by threats to stability, is trying to address some of the protesters’ broader concerns about the damage done by coal mining to traditional grazing lands.

The authorities have since launched a month-long overhaul of the lucrative coal mining industry, vowing to clean up or close polluters.

The action was halted within days and some analysts consider it one of China’s more successful forays into dispute resolution.

“[Communist] party officials are getting far more adept at coping with social discontent,” said Russell Leigh Moses, a Beijing-based political analyst.

“The more outbreaks of unrest, the more opportunities they have had to experiment with different instruments of force and dialogue. Local cadres seem to understand that a more potent way of confronting protests is by being proactive.”

With several thousand protests a year, over many issues, the authorities are getting plenty of opportunity to practise.

Wen Yunchao, a rights activist who monitored the Shanghai strike, saw it as a Chinese “model” for resolving disputes. He said: “That strike had leaders and they had clear requests of what they wanted, which meant the government had someone to talk to.”

Mr Wen said the grievances that led to the recent Guangdong riots, which erupted after security guards manhandled a pregnant street vendor, might prove more difficult to address. Authorities there have employed their own carrots. Police in the town of Zengcheng have offered much sought-after residency to migrant workers who provide tip-offs leading to the arrest of those who rioted.

The Shanghai lorry drivers’ strike also offers another example of how effective the authorities can be at shutting down the flow of information.

Chinese media carried almost nothing about the strike, which at one point featured brawls between police and drivers. Within days, the instant messaging groups used by strikers to communicate ceased to exist. Text messages carrying pictures of policemen beating strikers disappeared from mobile phones as soon as they arrived.

The cloak of secrecy has since spread. Logistics companies near the epicentre of the dispute – at northern Shanghai’s Wusong port – pretend they know nothing about any strike.

A surprisingly large number of drivers in the port district claim to be new to the profession. Using a typical Chinese phrase for obfuscation, they say they are “not clear” on the issue of the Shanghai strike.

Those that venture an opinion add that even if many of the grievances remain, life has moved on.

“Generally, strikes only happen when the temperature reaches a peak,” said one Jiangsu province driver on a large new lorry parked at the Zhongji Vehicle Logistics Centre where the strike began.

“But since the fees have been cut, the temperature is not that high,” he added.

In any case, having just taken out a bank loan for his Rmb370,000 ($57,000) vehicle, the driver said he could not afford to go on strike again in the near future.

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