China shows force in Shaxi after worker riots

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Media captionMigrant workers riot in China

The BBC's John Sudworth reports on the atmosphere in China's Shaxi, a manufacturing town in Guangdong province, following clashes between hundreds of locals and migrant workers on Monday.

There's a chance, certainly if you're reading this in the Middle East or Africa, that those jeans you're wearing were made in Shaxi.

It's a typical Chinese factory town, just across the Pearl River estuary from Hong Kong.

There's a Kentucky Fried Chicken here, probably not much more than an occasional treat on a migrant worker's salary but a sign nonetheless that China's decade-long export fuelled boom has been driving up incomes.

Hundreds of enterprises employ more than 40,000 workers who make tens of millions of garments a year.

Most are mass produced, ready-made goods, which is the reason that they are bound for those cheaper markets.

Civil strife

In the day or so that we've been here, we've met workers from Sichuan, Hebei, Hunan and Jiangxi provinces, as well as other parts of Guangdong.

For years this has been China's bargain with its mobile masses - steadily increasing wages in return for hard work far from home.

But increasingly it seems that the bargain is not always a happy one, and Shaxi's recent outburst of civil strife appears to be further evidence of the mistrust and simmering tension in China's migrant communities.

We kept a low profile on the streets of the town last night.

To say the least, foreign journalists are not always welcome at what China calls "mass incidents".

We saw hundreds of chanting, marching riot police, moving in formation through the streets, the black plastic of their helmets and shields reflecting the street lights.

At one point, I found myself ducking behind a row of beanstalks in a tenement garden while about 80 police gathered outside, just one of dozens of such groups guarding government buildings, banks and petrol stations.

Clear message

It was an overwhelming show of force designed to send a clear message that the rioting and trouble of the previous two nights wouldn't be tolerated.

And it appeared to have that effect - we saw evidence of only a few minor incidents and small-scale property damage.

Certainly nothing that looked like the scenes of rioting crowds, overturned cars and serious violence of the previous two nights.

That unrest was triggered by an allegation of police brutality against the son of a migrant family, said to have been detained and beaten following a fight with a local boy.

Image caption People in Shaxi watched the police march along the streets

But if Shaxi has been calmed, there is still smouldering anger, not only over that particular allegation, but over the way the riots have been policed as well as more general grievances.

"The police just started beating people without reason, any migrant on the street they just beat him," one woman told us.

And the riots are driving a wedge between the migrant and host community, with internet posts from locals talking of the need to defend their homes from the mob.

Civil unrest

The trouble in Shaxi has echoes of an outbreak of trouble in another one of Guangzhou's satellite towns in June last year.

Three days of rioting followed a report that a pregnant migrant worker had been pushed to the ground by security guards in the town of Zhengcheng.

Such incidents are certainly at the more serious end of the scale, but they are examples of dozens of cases of civil unrest and protest that take place somewhere in China every day.

There is anecdotal evidence at least to suggest they might be growing in number.

As China's export boom hit the buffers of the world financial crisis, migrants found their wages being squeezed, delayed or sometimes unpaid.

Coupled with rapidly rising living costs, it might just be that some of the inequalities migrant workers have long put up with are becoming a little bit harder to stomach.

In particular, they have limited access to social benefits because free schooling and healthcare can only be accessed in their home provinces.

'Social management'

The government appears aware of the dangers.

The country's senior politicians have been speaking of the need for better "social management", and at the same time, of course, increasing spending on internal security.

China is a long, long way from widespread unrest, let alone anarchy.

A predicted GDP growth rate of about 8% this year takes care of that.

But the experience of the producers of those cheap, made-in-Shaxi jeans is changing is subtle ways.

The shifting currents of the global economy have made their lives a little more turbulent of late.

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