Tania Branigan in Beijing
14 June 2011
Rioters burned police and fire vehicles in a third day of unrest in southern China's manufacturing heartlands, witnesses have reported.
Hong Kong broadcasters reported that armed police fired teargas as they sought to disperse the crowd and detained at least a dozen demonstrators.
The clashes, which began on Friday after a fracas between security officers and a pregnant street vendor in Xintang, Guangdong province, highlight Chinese authorities' struggle to control social frustrations. It is thought that most protesters were migrant workers like the vendor.
Last week hundreds of migrant workers clashed with police in Chaozhou, also in Guangdong, following a dispute over unpaid wages. In Lichuan, Hubei, as many as 2,000 protesters attacked government headquarters last Thursday after a local politician who had complained about official corruption died in police custody.
Inner Mongolia recently saw its biggest street protests for 20 years, over the killing of a Mongolian herder who sought to halt coal trucks trespassing on grasslands.
Although the causes seem to have been very different in each case, the spate of incidents underlines the challenge that authorities face in preventing widespread grievances bursting out.
Unrest is thought to have become increasingly frequent, although data is hard to come by. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has estimated that there were more than 90,000 mass incidents in 2006, with further increases in the following two years.
China has increased its domestic security budget by 13.8% this year, to 624.4bn yuan (£59bn).
Police in Guangdong said on Sunday they had arrested 25 people after violence broke out on Friday night following a row between chengguan – low-level law enforcement officers – and a pregnant vendor during a crackdown on street stalls.
State news agency Xinhua said that Wang Lianmei fell during the dispute, while other accounts said that the chengguan had shoved her. The officers have a reputation for thuggish behaviour.
Other migrant workers from her province, Sichuan, quickly gathered, with some attacking police vehicles called to the scene with bottles, bricks and stones.
Another crowd gathered on Saturday as rumours spread that police had killed Wang's husband, Tang Xuecai, and that she had been seriously injured. Local media said he appeared at a press conference on Sunday to say that his wife and their baby were fine and that he was happy with the government's handling of the case.
"The case was just an ordinary clash between street vendors and local public security people but was used by a handful of people who wanted to cause trouble," said Ye Niuping, the local mayor, urging residents not to spread "concocted rumours".
The South China Morning Post said Xintang appeared to have calmed down on Sunday afternoon, with armed police and armoured vehicles patrolling the area, but that as many as 1,000 later gathered despite the heavy police presence.
"There were many people out on the streets late last night, shouting and trying to create chaos. Some of them even smashed police vehicles," said a worker from the nearby Fengcai clothing factory, adding that bosses barred employees from leaving the plant.
An employee at a hotel in the area said police had told them to stay indoors.
State news agency Xinhua reported on Monday that officials had sent work groups to villages, factories and residential communities to set the record straight.
Guangdong police headquarters declined to comment and calls to the local police station rang unanswered.
"There is a lot of pent up anger and frustration among ordinary people – not just migrant workers," said Geoff Crothall of Hong Kong's China Labour Bulletin, noting the different causes behind the recent outbreaks of unrest.
But he added: "There are many towns in Guangdong which are still very much [divided between] locals and outsiders. Migrant workers are still doing the lowest paid, dirtiest jobs and suffer discrimination on a daily basis. That's going to cause resentment and anger to build up."