SHENYANG, China — Liu Lao is on the longest vacation of his life: two years and counting.
In 1997, the state-run iron foundry where he worked suddenly stopped production after losing too much money. But rather than lay everyone off, the factory bosses sent employees home "on holiday," a semantic ploy that allowed them to avoid having to pay severance and welfare benefits.
Liu now spends his extended, unpaid "holiday" standing on a sidewalk in this ancient imperial city, peddling cheap steering-wheel covers to passing motorists and stewing in a kettle of discontent.
"If workers had supported the students in '89," he grumbled, referring to the abortive anti-government protests that year in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, "the outcome would have been a lot different."
A decade after Beijing sent tanks in to crush demonstrators on June 4, 1989, killing hundreds--perhaps thousands--of people, the prospect of labor unrest worries China's Communist leaders the most as they seek to hold on to power in the world's most populous country.
The former students who pushed for democracy are a spent force these days, in prison, in exile or indifferent, more concerned about their pocketbooks than politics. Their successors at China's universities are more likely to back the government than attack it--witness the student-led demonstrations that erupted after last month's NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital.
But with unemployment spiraling and the economy slowing, disaffection among urban workers, a key segment of Chinese society, is on the rise. And while few Western commentators seem to remember, the Communist regime is acutely aware that economic and labor grievances played an important role in the 1989 protests, a realization that helps explain Beijing's continuing jitters over restiveness among China's 200-million-strong urban work force.
Already, reports are rife of labor unrest across the country, from Hunan province in the south to here in the northeast, China's Rust Belt.
So far, most of the unrest has taken the form of small, isolated protests by unpaid workers who block traffic or picket local authorities to get their demands heard.
But the government fears that laborers--particularly the unemployed, who number between 15 million and 25 million in China--might organize en masse to become the wellspring of new opposition to Communist rule. Or, worse yet, that disgruntled workers might try to link up with other disenfranchised groups, such as political dissidents, to create some sort of united national front.
"Until you get Wuhan hooked up with Beijing, which is hooked up with Shenyang, it's not going to be a threat to the government," said a Western diplomat who tracks labor issues. "There's potential for localized protests, but until there's a national organization, it's not a threat."
Little evidence has emerged of serious coordination among workers countrywide or between workers and other groups. Many unemployed laborers, often in their 40s and 50s, say they have too much to lose to mount challenges that appear doomed to fail against the implacable machinery of an authoritarian state.
"If we get thrown in jail, who will take care of our families?" asked Yu Wenting, 47, a factory worker who has been out of a job for two years. "Under the Communist Party, the Chinese people have become obedient. They don't dare fight the party."
But Beijing is taking no chances.
3 Labor Activists Reportedly on Trial
Last week, three men who tried to set up an independent labor watchdog group in the central city of Tianshui were put on trial for subversion, a Hong Kong-based human rights group reported. The charges carry stiff prison sentences and are similar to those filed in December against democracy activists who tried to establish an opposition political party. The activists are now in jail.
Maintaining "domestic stability" remains the Communist leadership's mantra in this year of sensitive anniversaries, including the 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown and the 50th anniversary of the founding of Communist China.
"Without stability, nothing can be achieved, and successes already attained will be lost," Vice President Hu Jintao warned in a published message to workers to mark International Labor Day on May 1. "Workers must wholeheartedly cherish the nation's political stability and unity."
It is apparent that not everyone feels the same way.
Protests Commonplace in Hard-Hit Shenyang
Here in Shenyang, an industrial hub once humming with activity, small-scale protests have become commonplace, with demonstrators lying down in busy streets to get the municipal government's attention. Shenyang, the capital of Liaoning province, has been particularly hard hit by a combination of factors--China's market reforms, official corruption and Asia's sluggish economy--that has forced scores of state-owned enterprises to go under and thrown hundreds of thousands of people out of work.