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Retirees Balk at Beijing's Bitter Pill

China: Upset by unpaid pensions and meager benefits, seniors are joining labor protests.

June 10, 2002|HENRY CHU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BEIJING -- Wang Qianzhan feels entitled to a comfortable retirement, a golden twilight measured out in meals with friends and hours spent doting on her only grandchild. It's what she deserves, Wang says, after toiling for 28 years at a state-owned auto factory in eastern Beijing.

Instead, what Wang has reaped from all that hard work is a harvest of worry and anger. Armed with her grievances, this sweet-faced grandmother has become an unlikely warrior in an army potentially more dangerous to China's Communist regime than any hostile foreign force.

Wang, 67, is one of China's millions of disgruntled workers who once thought themselves the pride of the nation but now see themselves as victims of it.

A wave of labor unrest is sweeping the nation, whipped up by discontented workers who gather by the dozens, hundreds and sometimes thousands to protest the loss of their "iron rice bowls," the welfare system smashed by China's shift to a market economy.

Their ranks include not just men and women in the prime of their working lives but a sizable proportion of people like Wang: silver-haired retirees willing to trade in their knitting needles and mah-jongg tiles for some gritty street activism.

Angry over unpaid pensions, meager retirement benefits and rampant corruption, more and more of China's elderly are marching on city hall. They chant slogans, stage sit-ins and even lie down in traffic, counting on traditional Chinese respect for age to make their voices heard--and to shield them from violent suppression.

"Nobody pays you any heed if you're on your own," Wang, a veteran of nearly a dozen sit-ins, said, jabbing a finger for emphasis. "They only pay attention to a big group."

Such groups have been making headlines recently. Tension among workers has boiled over into protests across the country, causing major concern among China's Communist rulers, who prize social stability above all else and hate challenges to their authority.

In March, huge demonstrations shook the northeastern cities of Daqing and Liaoyang, where thousands of workers--including a contingent of retired employees--turned out to vent their anger at the government over inadequate welfare payments, overdue wages and scaled-back benefits.

A few weeks later, the streets of Guiyang, a provincial capital in southern China, were besieged by more than 1,000 former steel workers. Witnesses described the demonstrators as grandmothers in their 60s and 70s who blocked roads and forced officials to come out and listen to their complaints.

And here in Beijing, about 200 of Wang's fellow retirees from the Beijing United Automobile and Motorcycle Manufacturing Co. staged their own modest protest March 27. The brigade of demonstrators, including a few who shuffled with age and infirmity, managed to bring traffic to a halt on one of the city's busiest ring roads. "There weren't any younger people there," Wang said.

Among the workers of her generation, who have watched their benefits shrivel and their social standing plunge, the sense of betrayal by the government is particularly acute because many still remember how the Communist Party was propelled to power in 1949 with their help.

For decades afterward, the party extolled workers as the "leading class" of the revolution. To be a member of the proletariat was to be a hero.

But the teachings of Marx have given way to the often bitter lessons of the market over the last 20 years.

"We felt we were the masters [of the nation] during Mao's time. We were respected, and it was glorious to be a worker," said Kang Fengying, 65, who retired from her job at a food-processing factory outside Beijing 15 years ago.

Now, she lamented, "we have the lowest status in society."

Instead, the new heroes are those previously denounced as "exploiters": the entrepreneurs who represent the most dynamic segment of China's economy. Repudiating--at least in practice--what it once stood for, China's Communist Party now welcomes entrepreneurs into the fold.

In an almost absurd twist May 1, International Labor Day, the Chinese government inducted four private businesspeople into its hall of fame of "model workers," the first time it has bestowed such honors on its former "class enemies."

Economic planners here have their fingers crossed that the private sector will absorb many of the legions of unemployed and laid-off workers from moribund state industries.

Officially, the urban jobless rate is less than 4%, but privately, economists put the figure somewhere between 7% and 10%. A government report in April, addressing a politically sensitive issue with unusual candor, warned that the number of jobless in China could top 20 million in four years.

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