The Dongying Protest

The following email was forwarded here:

Well, it's been an interesting month back in China . I know I've said this many times, but this is simply a fascinating place to live.

Topping the list of fascinating things, the week I arrived back in Dongying saw a major protest downtown that led to shutting down all traffic in the area, which happened to encompass my school. Quite a few branches of Chinese law enforcement were represented, including city police in plain uniforms, more specialized units in full riot gear, and army units from Shandong contingents.

Every Chinese friend of mine pretty much either had no idea what was going on or only knew a few bits of the story. All they knew was there was a protest by some of the oil company workers and the company/government was responding to it with overwhelming numbers of police and soldiers. No, it was a foreigner that gave me the inside scoop. A friend of mine teaches English to upper-middle executives at the oil company, who incidentally moved well outside of town for the duration of the protest. I met my friend walking to work, and we stood and chatted just about a dozen feet from the line of at least 20 policemen blocking off an alley leading the main street of town.

First, some background: The oil company is seriously over-employed, as in they could lose half of their workers and still have more workers than they need. This is a form of corruption that the government actually promotes since, news flash, there are a lot of people in China and mass unemployment = mass poverty = civil unrest. Even supermarkets will have many more workers than they need, but government owned businesses are the ones that need to lose the most weight. This creates a catch 22 for China now that these businesses have to start competing with efficiently-run private enterprises, both foreign and Chinese.

So a few years ago the oil company told a chunk of its workers that they need to quit or they'll be fired. The workers that quit were offered a severance package that included a pension. I'm guessing these workers were near retirement age, but it wouldn't shock me either if these were young workers being paid not to work since that was already essentially what was happening. Anyway, the massive oil company will soon be split into several smaller companies responsible for separate parts of the process, drilling, refining, etc. The crux of the issue is nobody knows which of these companies will continue to pay the pensions of those workers. Obviously the pensioners got the strong impression that they would be cut off and started protesting in front of the oil company headquarters downtown. Well, it's freezing in Dongying now, and the protestors apparently got tired of waiting out in the cold while oil executives did nothing inside their warm building. So the protestors took over the building, kicking everyone out of it, breaking all the windows, and otherwise trashing the place. Then they took up residence in the building.

I thanked my friend for the info and went on to work. I'm not so clear on what happened after that. The police blocked off all the streets around that area of town for the rest of the week. That leads me to believe that they negotiated with the protestors. I can at least tell you that there wasn't any major violence. I know this probably doesn't fit with the impression that many of you probably have about the Chinese government and how it solves its problems. Well, this is my take on it:  the government has always been about containing civil unrest, stopping it from spreading to the rest of the population. If it spreads, then the logistics of stopping it become a lot more problematic. Remember the earlier news flash; China has a lot of people. So I think negotiation in this instance would be consistent with the strategy of containment.

Paying these workers is much easier than storming the building and brutalizing and/or arresting them all. The reason the oil company is so over-employed is because people already working there get their friends and family jobs there too. Dongying may be a relatively small city (2 million) but a large percentage of Dongying residents work for the oil company or a related business. The web of relationships and connections (which are all-important in China) surely entangles the majority of Dongying. It would be a really bad idea to do anything nasty to protestors who the larger population would view as protesting for legitimate reasons.

At the same time, it appeared clear to me that the police and soldiers were there for show. The trucks carrying the soldiers (who stood at attention in uncovered trucks despite the cold) drove up and down other streets outside the blockaded perimeter. Wherever they drove by, everyone stopped and stared, myself included. And I don't know about other countries, but China's bulletproof personnel carriers have big characters on each side saying "Bulletproof Military Vehicle." Firearms of any kind are extremely difficult to obtain in China, not impossible mind you, just extremely difficult. I think the army should just come out with a new slogan, "You can't get a gun, but even if you could you still wouldn't be able to go against us." So tons of police and soldiers were clustered in the downtown area but did not storm the company headquarters. I don't think it was because they were unable.