In the late 1990s and early years of this decade China’s industrial regions were hit by extensive protests as workers resisted the privatization of large state-owned enterprises. Now there are signs of that labor unrest returning. For the second time in a month steelworkers have protested the sale of a mill to private buyers. In late July a manager was killed by rioting steelworkers in northeastern Jilin province. That violence helped block a proposed takeover. Over the weekend another proposed privatization of a steel mill in central Henan province was also thwarted by worker protests.
The unrest at the two steel mills does not seem, paradoxically, to be directly linked to the global economic downturn. China’s steel mills have been booming in recent months in response to the country’s $586 billion stimulus package, which has focused on steel-heavy infrastructure projects. As state-owned mills have turned profitable, they’ve attracted investors who invision further gains by cutting huge payrolls. Labor rights advocates say workers have too little say in how the deals are worked out, leaving them with little avenue but to protest. Now that two privatization plans have been blocked in quick successsion, steelworkers in other mills will surely be emboldened. As China’s steel sector booms, more unrest seems inevitable.