Hong Kong: Riot police fired tear gas to disperse rampaging migrant workers in southern China protesting over the mistreatment of a pregnant street hawker by security guards, media reports said on Monday, the latest in a series of protests across the country.
Hong Kong television showed crowds of workers from the southwestern province of Sichuan running through the streets of Zengcheng, near Guangzhou, over the weekend. They smashed windows, set fire to government buildings and overturned police vehicles.
It showed riot police firing tear gas and deploying armoured vehicles to disperse the crowds and handcuffing protesters.
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 in the wake of the protests that have swept the Arab world.
Witnesses said more than 1,000 protesters had besieged at least one government office.
"People were running around like crazy," a shop owner in the area told the South China Morning Post. "I had to shut the shop by 7 pm and dared not come out."
News reports said the incident in Zengcheng was sparked on Friday night when security personnel in nearby Dadun village pushed pregnant hawker Wang Lianmei, 20, to the ground while trying to clear her off 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 was quoted as saying by the China Daily newspaper.
Other clashes have erupted in southern China in recent weeks, including in Chaozhou, where hundreds of migrant workers demanding payment of their wages at a ceramics factory attacked government buildings and set vehicles ablaze.
Last week, protests erupted in central China at the death under interrogation of an official.
Over the weekend, state media said that two people were slightly injured in an explosion in Beijing`s neighbouring city of Tianjin, set off by a man bent on "revenge against society".
Despite pervasive censorship and government controls, word of protests, along with often dramatic pictures, spreads fast in China on mobile telephones and the Internet, especially on popular microblogging sites.
In 2007, China had over 80,000 "mass incidents”, up from over 60,000 in 2006, according to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Many involved no more than dozens protesting against local officials over complaints about corruption, abuse of power, pollution or poor wages.
Guangdong`s Communist Party boss, Wang Yang, is one of the ambitious provincial leaders who may win a place in China`s next central leadership, after President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao retire from power from late next year.
In past months, Wang has sought to cast himself as a moderate leader willing to heed ordinary citizens` gripes, and has said his priority is improving the public sense of wellbeing -- a gentler message than the hardline one that domestic security officials have pushed.
"Use rule of law to protect and realise people`s democratic rights," Wang told a meeting in April, according to the Xinhua news agency. "People don`t fear poverty; what they fear is not having the market conditions for fair competition so that they can achieve prosperity."
In April, too, the Communist Party committee of Guangdong heard a lecture from Sun Liping, a sociologist from Tsinghua University in Beijing who has bluntly warned that corruption, inequality and divisions threaten to "rupture" Chinese society.