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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Thousands in Oil Protest as China Loses 'Daqing Spirit'

BEIJING -- Thousands of laid-off workers remain in a long-running standoff with officials at one of China's largest oil fields.

Dissatisfied with the terms of their severance, the workers have surrounded the offices of the Daqing Oil Management Bureau in China's northernmost province, Heilongjiang, since March 1, but dispersing peacefully each night.

A public relations official for PetroChina, the oil field's parent company, rejected earlier reports of tens of thousands of protesters as exaggerated.

China hailed completion of Daqing's main facilities in 1963 as a sign that the country no longer needed to import oil. The following year, the Communist Party directed government departments to learn from the "Daqing spirit" of self-reliance. At its peak, Daqing produced about two-fifths of China's crude oil.

In its transition to a market economy, however, China has increased its reliance on petroleum imports.

In 1998, in anticipation of foreign competition after its entry into the World Trade Organization, China organized its oil companies into northern- and southern-based conglomerates. The northern one, PetroChina, absorbed Daqing. But during restructuring ahead of its stock market listings in New York and Hong Kong in 2000, PetroChina took its best-performing assets and Daqing was left with outdated plants and a bloated staff.

Last year, the Daqing Oil Management Bureau was named the fourth-worst corporate performer nationwide in giving the government money for retirement benefits.

In recent years as many as 80,000 bureau employees have signed severance contracts worth up to $500 for each year they worked at the company. Although the payment was a substantial sum for many workers, many still felt it would not cover rapid increases in the cost of living and hence wanted their jobs back.

"But they looked at the contract before signing it. You can't just walk off the job one day and then come back tomorrow," said the PetroChina spokesman.