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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Jobless Chinese Miners Set Town Ablaze

YANGJIAZHANGZI, China -- More than 20,000 workers and their families battled with police and soldiers in this northeastern Chinese mining town for three days in late February in one of the most explosive, known incidents of urban labor unrest in years, witnesses here said.

Miners were incensed at the loss of their jobs and alleged corruption among the officials who run this rugged region deep in China's rust belt 400 kilometers northeast of Beijing. They burned cars, barricaded streets, smashed windows and set oil drums ablaze in protests that were finally quelled by a detachment of soldiers from the People's Liberation Army, the witnesses said.

The eruption in Yangjiazhangzi underscored the challenge facing the Chinese government as it attempts to shut bloated, state-owned enterprises, leaving millions of laborers out of work. This challenge will become all the more critical as China prepares to enter the World Trade Organization, a move that will intensify competition as its markets open further to foreign companies.

The riots also illustrated the incendiary role of corruption in China. Several workers interviewed here Tuesday said they would not have taken to the streets if they felt the reforms of state-owned industry were being carried out fairly.

"It's so obvious that the leaders are [cheating] us," said Wang Jian, 56, who has worked at the mine since he was 19. "They have sold parts of the mine to their friends. They have sold all the mine's trucks. But we haven't seen this money. There is no open accounting. They eat it and drink it away."

The protests went unreported in the government-controlled Chinese media. But reports of the conflict recently reached Beijing, and the events were reconstructed Tuesday in interviews with a dozen local residents. A trip through the town revealed a bleak landscape of shuttered small businesses. In the center of the town of about 30,000 people, the windows of the mine's main garage had been smashed. A block up the street lay the charred carcass of an automobile.

At a market, men and women were selling goods nobody seemed to want. One man hawked a pile of old shoes. A woman in a ragged sweater had magazines from the early 1980s for sale.

Trouble had been brewing at the Yangjiaz hangzi mine for months. Most parts of the facility, which produced molybdenum and was the mainland's biggest non-ferrous mine, closed in November. Molybdenum is used in the manufacture of rockets, airplanes and X-ray machines because it can withstand high temperatures.

Many workers such as Wang said they had not been paid since early last year.

"There were incidents of hunger in my building," said one worker, surnamed Cui, who refused to allow his full name to be used. "The government did provide some rice and oil to the hungry, but not very much."

In February, the mine announced a severance package. It would pay each worker $68 for each year worked at the mine, but workers would have to contribute to social security and health-insurance benefits from that amount. Sixty-eight dollars is a paltry sum even in poverty-stricken northeastern China. A family of three can live on it for a month, but just barely.

Zhang Jianguo, 53, said that together, he and his wife had worked 35 years at the mine. They were given $2,380, but by the time they subtracted health insurance and social security costs, they were left with about $500.

"That will last 10 months," Zhang said. "After that, what am I going to do? How are we going to eat?"

A local joke says miners who married farmers' daughters are now the happiest of the lot - they can go home and grow vegetables. According to accounts by residents, thousands of workers massed at the mine headquarters Feb. 27, demanding to see officials. But they did not appear. The mayor showed up, but his speech only infuriated the crowd, which then blocked the gate leading into the headquarters. Workers began overturning cars and setting them on fire.

One of the workers' main complaints was that parts of the mine were transferred to people believed to be friends and relatives of local power brokers. During a visit to the mine Tuesday, workers near the facility said part of the mine is still functioning but is now owned by private individuals who either bought or were given claims to the mine.

"This process was totally opaque," said He Binghan, a 42-year-old driver who still works in one of the pits. "We miners have been working here for China, for the Communist Party, since the revolution. And now suddenly my part of the mine is private. And no one told me how."

Police responded from Huludao and Jinzhou, two small cities about 50 kilometers away on the coast of the Bohai Sea. But protesters surrounded their cars and trucks as well, according to local accounts. Troops from the People's Armed Police were bussed to the scene and fired tear gas at the crowd. As the protests continued, government officials expressed concern that the miners would begin to set off the mines' dynamite stock to fend off the authorities.

But two days later, Feb. 29, the People's Liberation Army rolled into Yangjiazhangzi, fired shots above the crowd and restored order. There were injuries on both sides, but no deaths were reported.

Workers said 20 to 30 miners have been arrested on charges of destroying public property. A poster written by the local Public Security Bureau has been plastered on walls throughout the town, warning residents against spreading rumors, overturning cars, stoning government buildings and torching oil tankers. Officials were unavailable for comment.

The town was placed under a loose curfew, with People's Armed Police standing guard around government offices and the mine. The curfew was lifted at the end of March, residents said, but scores of police vehicles cruised the two main streets Tuesday.

The riot in Yangjiazhangzi was severe for a disturbance in a Chinese city but was indicative of unrest bedeviling the Communist Party. Sit-ins and other demonstrations are routine in bigger cities these days, sparked by the wrenching reforms of the state-owned sector. The demonstrations are almost always about economic issues and rarely suppressed by force.

In the countryside, however, authorities appear more willing to order security services to smash protests and fire on demonstrators. Those protests are generally sparked because local authorities have attempted to force farmers to pay randomly imposed fees.

Labor Minister Zhang Zuoji said last month that there will be 11.5 million workers without jobs at the end of the year as thousands of steel mills, mines, cement plants and machine-tool factories close as part of the reforms. Zhang also acknowledged unrest, noting that 500,000 to 600,000 retired workers did not receive pensions on time last year and 600,000 to 700,000 laid-off workers didn't receive unemployment insurance.

Those figures are thought to vastly underestimate the seriousness of the problem; the World Bank estimates that of the 140 million workers in China's state-owned sector, as many as 35 percent could be fired.