Angry Chinese join corruption protests

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The Independent Online
UP TO 200 protesters marched through the centre of Peking yesterday in the most audacious public demonstration in China's capital city since the 1989 pro-democracy movement.

This time it was not politics that stirred emotions but money. But when Chinese people are angry about anything these days they take to the streets, whether to complain about job losses, unpaid wages, housing, corruption, or investment swindles. In recent months a wave of demonstrations and strikes has swept across China.

Yesterday it was the turn of gullible investors who had lost their savings in a futures trading scam, lured by get-rich-quick promises of huge interest payments of more than 20 per cent a month. They are now furious that the government is not willing to take responsibility for having licensed the firm.

The case has also highlighted the grievances felt by ordinary Chinese at apparent official collusion in such cases. The Taiwan-resident boss of the Xin Guo Da futures investment company, who has recently been arrested on the mainland, gained people's trust - and 532 million yuan (pounds 40m) in investment - by playing up his links with the People's Liberation Army. His office walls showed off photographs of him mixing with China's top leaders.

So the irate investors decided to make their point. It was an extraordinary sight as the protesters, many wheeling bicycles, made their sedate three- hour way from the offices of the closed investment firm, past the south edge of Tiananmen Square, to the headquarters of the official Xinhua news agency.

Scores of police stood by, determined to keep the marchers off the square itself. Otherwise they did not interfere. Foreign media, on the other hand, were detained when spotted and their film footage confiscated.

China's leaders are terrified of the potential of social instability but dare not crack down too heavily because so many of the complaints appear reasonable. Economic reforms have thrown millions out of work, corruption has milked ordinary Chinese of their money, and redress through the courts is rarely a practical option.

The past month alone has seen a variety of Chinese people taking a stand. Among other protests, 200 workers from a state cement factory in Luoyang city, Henan province, surrounded government offices for five days. They feared plans to sell the factory cheaply would threaten jobs and pensions. Many of China's state assets have been sold cheaply in corrupt deals.

An official died in Sichuan province when he fell from a window trying to escape from a demonstration by local farmers about illegal local taxes.

And about 100 employees of a pharmaceuticals firm in Linhai city, Zhejiang province, staged a sit-in and accused the company boss of embezzling so much money that the company was on the brink of collapse.

In many big industrial cities, workers' protests are commonplace. These vocal exhibitions of public dissatisfactions, combined with the impact of the Asian economic crisis, have led to a go-slow by Peking for itsplans to reform state-owned enterprises by sacking more millions of workers. State banks have been instructed to prop up ailing sectors with more loans.

Yesterday's protesters had been tempted by ridiculously high interest rates, but had fallen for the promises partly because the futures firm was registered with the authorities. When it shut its doors in August they were devastated, and staged daily protests.

This week's anger was prompted by the Xinhua news report of the arrest of the Xin Guo Da boss. It claimed the owners used fake documents to secure the necessary business licences. To the investors, this seemed - unreasonably - to let the authorities off the hook.

So they walked, quietly and without banners, until they reached Xinhua. Whether their bid for compensation is successful remains to be seen. But it is a good bet that Xinhua will not be reporting their grievances in full.