Economy protests worry Beijing

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BEIJING | A string of strikes and violent protests is unnerving China’s Communist Party leadership as it struggles to contain the fallout from the global economic slowdown that appears likely to sharply increase unemployment.

In the latest instance of unrest, hundreds of protesters stormed the gates of a toy factory in southern China that supplies U.S. toy maker Hasbro Inc. on Tuesday and Wednesday, smashing police vehicles, wrestling with security guards and breaking into management offices to destroy computer equipment.

The incident occurred as the World Bank announced that it was cutting its forecast for China´s 2009 growth rate to 7.5 percent from 9.2 percent — further evidence that a slump in demand for Chinese exports is hitting the country hard.

Only a week ago, a crowd of about 2,000 demonstrators used axes, chains and iron bars to attack police in Longnan, a city in the northwestern province of Gansu, after a protest over an unpopular urban redevelopment program spiraled out of control.

But the act of rebellion that is likely to cause the greatest anxiety among the party´s top ranks is a series of strikes by taxi drivers that have rippled across the country since the beginning of November.

Starting in Chongqing, a huge metropolis in Sichuan province in the southwest, the strikes have spread to Shandong province in the east, Gansu in the west and Guangdong in the south, as drivers bemoan financial pressures brought about by competition from unlicensed drivers, high fuel costs and rising rental fees.

Hundreds of taxi drivers fought with police in Guangzhou, near the border with Hong Kong, on Monday after they claimed one of the drivers had been beaten up by a local official. On the same day, cabbies in Zhouxi, a county in Shaanxi province, gathered in the main square to protest unlicensed vehicles robbing them of business.

It is the apparent copycat nature of the strikes that worries the central government. Official statistics reveal that tens of thousands of “mass incidents” — the propaganda department´s euphemism for civil unrest - occur in China every year but, unlike the taxi strikes, they are usually unconnected.

“The regional dispersion of the protests, coupled with the short time frame in which they have occurred, raises concerns in Beijing,” said Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence company based in Texas, in a report on the labor actions.

These strikes “represent a different sort of challenge” to the authorities than an isolated rural protest, said Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a professor of history at the University of California at Irvine, and author of “Global Shanghai: 1850-2010.”

“The party´s strategy in recent years has been to crack down hard on any protest that seems to have the potential to unite people of different social classes or link the disgruntled in different places, but to be readier to compromise or at least use less repressive tactics when the unrest is local and only involves people in one group.

“What raises interesting questions for this strategy now is protests in different places that do not seem to be linked organizationally yet mirror each other,” he said.

Singapore’s ambassador to the United States, Chan Heng Chee, told The Washington Times on Wednesday that there are 60,000 demonstrations or other protests in China every year. “There will be instability in China” because of the economic downturn, said Mrs. Chan, whose grandparents came to Singapore from southern China.

“The Chinese are worried about it but they will manage. … They have a track record of navigating themselves out of their problems.”

Responding to the strikes, Chinese authorities have put into practice a media control strategy propounded by President Hu Jintao in a speech in June.

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