China: Show of force after migrants riot

Riot police poured into a southern Chinese factory town crowded with migrant workers yesterday, a day after militia fired tear gas to quell rioting over the abuse of a pregnant street hawker who became a symbol of simmering grassroots discontent.

Video footage and photos shot on mobile phones by residents in Zengcheng, in Guangdong province, showed angry mobs torching government buildings, smashing police vehicles, and clashing in their thousands with riot police over the weekend.

The unrest was triggered by security guards who had set upon the hawker, Wang Lianmei, on Friday, but underlying frustration over other social pressures, including rampant food price and housing inflation, as well as corrupt local officials, had also stoked anger.

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By its latest count, China has about 145 million rural migrant workers. Though many of them have gained better wages and treatment in recent years, the gap between them and established urban residents remains stark, feeding ire about discrimination and ill-treatment. A pregnant stallholder set upon by guards would embody that resentment in the eyes of many migrants.

Footage showed riot police firing tear gas and deploying armoured vehicles to disperse the crowds, as well as handcuffing protesters.

By last night the city was calm but tense with the mass mobilisation of several thousand riot police.

"There were thousands of people on the street (last night], it was chaotic," said a shirtless migrant worker from Chongqing surnamed Li, as he squatted and watched the police lines with a group of friends. "But there are a lot more police tonight."

Though protests have become relatively common over anything from corruption to abuse of power, the ruling Communist Party is sensitive to any possible threat to its hold on power.

Despite pervasive censorship and government controls, word of protests, along with often dramatic pictures, spreads fast in China on mobile telephones and the internet.

Guangdong is also a pillar of China's export industries, and persistent unrest there could unnerve buyers and investors.

News reports said the incident was sparked on Friday night when security personnel in nearby Dadun village pushed pregnant hawker Wang, 20, to the ground while trying to clear her from the streets.

"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," Zengcheng mayor Ye Niuping said.

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