The revolution that leaves the people behind

Teresa Poole finds Tianjin's desperate workers searching the streets for survival
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"PEOPLE at our age, we can't find jobs. We're finished. Even as servants, they want younger ones," said Huang Li, her haggard face whitened with powder and her lips painted red. "I'm 37."

At the municipal job centre in Tianjin city, 75 miles east of Peking, the human casualties of China's new industrial revolution queue up in search of a better future.

"In my family, among my brothers and sisters and our wives and husbands, we seven have all lost our jobs. We are in our late forties. What can we do?" said one man, dismissed by a chemicals factory. "Don't listen to the talk of the leaders, they are corrupt. I was a soldier in the past, but what do I get from the government now?"

Unemployment in China is reaching crisis levels, and much worse is yet to come. As the country's parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC), opens its annual meeting today official delegates from around the country are demanding help in coping with the legions of redundant workers back in their home cities, laid-off by loss-making state factories which are no longer being bailed out by government funds.

The question is whether the Communist party can keep the lid on rising social pressures in the city, where people used to be guaranteed work under the centrally planned economy. All that has changed with the reform of state owned enterprises.

Some 12 million urban state workers have already been made redundant, and according to the government-controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions, another 8 - 10 million will lose their jobs by 2000. Under the restructuring of government ministries to be announced today at the NPC, about 4 million civil servants will also be laid off. This adds up to a quarter of China's urban workforce.

In the ailing industrial city of Tianjin, one in seven industrial workers have already lost their jobs, or "xia gang" (stepped down from one's post) in the new idiom. Their only safety net is being allowed to keep their virtually-free housing.

After 5pm, when hawkers are allowed on the main shopping streets, the jobless of Tianjin spill out onto the pavements, laying out their meagre goods to sell. These people are often deemed in official statistics as having found re-employment.

One 37-year-old woman was offering cheap tweezers, eye pencils and face sponges after losing her job with a fridge factory. "I sell about 10 yuan (75p) worth a night, from which I get a few yuan profit. Doing this is my only choice."

Next to her stood a 45-year-old woman selling toffee rice cakes which she had made at home, and her husband with a candy-floss machine on the back of his bicycle. They both lost their jobs at Tianjin's Number 1 Textile Factory last year. "At first I stayed at home for several months," she said. "Then a relative gave me this idea. I work during the day to make the cakes, and stay here until midnight to sell as many as possible." All the profits go towards paying their child's school fees, the couple said. Like most redundant workers, they received no unemployment benefit.

The Tianjin government expects another 100,000 to join the jobless queues this year, and is making an effort to organise job fairs and retraining opportunities. But the demand is overwhelming.

Outside the job centre that day, a crowd had started to gather long before the doors opened at 9am. Around 15,000 people turn up here each week, said Zhao Dingcheng, vice-director of the centre; this is the city's biggest job centre, but it has another 152 smaller ones.

Ms Huang stood with her middle-aged friends by a company advertising for computer programmers and printing machine operators. "I have no skills, I can only do some hard labour work. I lost my job at the state flour depot just over a year ago," said Ms Huang. She receives pounds 3.50 a month from her old state danwei (work unit) in unemployment money.

"I sell socks, shoe insoles. No matter how much we earn at least we must keep going."