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Worker Protests In China:  Plentiful But Preempted

The last annualized figure for labor protests that Beijing was willing to announce publicly was 100,000 for the year 1999. But a 2001 internal report from the Ministry of Public Security disclosed that the numbers "began a rise like a violent wind" from 1997, the year of the Communist Party's Fifteenth Congress, which pressed for factory firings in the name of "efficiency."

While the government is determined to keep news of all disturbances out of the media--or at least downplay their size and disruptiveness--it has been possible to collect information on nearly 200 separate events occurring between 1994 and 2004, some from news sources in Hong Kong, some from the Western media, and a few from Chinese publications.

They all exhibit the same, unchanging pattern: the government, whether in Beijing or the localities, tolerates the low-decibel, smaller-scale, relatively non-disruptive marches and sit-ins by demonstrators bearing petitions and posters, especially if they appear to be spontaneous, un-organized, localized and leaderless.

The incidents loom substantially more dangerous to the political elite if they seem to have been mobilized by dissidents, are marked by some measure of violence, threaten to spread, or entail the obstruction of major transport trunklines. Indeed, the episodes that make it into the media beyond the Mainland are usually such protests.