The dissent among China’s lowest social strata that constantly bubbles beneath the surface burst forth in the weekend’s riot in Zengcheng, a textiles export town in Guangdong. Thousands of workers, many migrants from Sichuan, took to the streets after a pregnant hawker, also from Sichuan, was knocked to the ground on Friday by either police or security guards trying to make her move her stall. Government buildings were attacked and vehicles, including police cars, set on fire. Police fired teargas to disperse the crowds. Riot police now control the town. A curfew has been imposed.
Complaints about corruption and the abuse of power are commonplace, especially among migrant workers, who feel themselves being close to the bottom of the heap, much discriminated against and are finding what is already a hard-scrabble life being made worse by high inflation, now at a nearly 3-year high. Most of the time authorities keep the lid on this resentment, and particularly now when any potential signs of challenge to the Party’s rule are being snuffed out. But the Zengcheng riot is by no means unique.
Over the past decade, some 100 million migrant workers have moved from the countryside to the factories and workshops of China’s industrial cities, doubling their number to 221 million. The recent census uncovered much larger numbers of migrant workers than thought in all the provinces in the Pearl and Yangtze river deltas, where the haves and havenots live in close proximity though separated by the hukou system. Migrants’ numbers and anger remain a continuous threat to stability, one that ultimately will require a solution to the root causes.