Teachers across rural China, many long retired or forced from classrooms, have joined a recent surge of protests, with hundreds, sometimes thousands, besieging local governments to demand better treatment and denounce official privilege.
This week teachers in Xinning county in the central province of Hunan signed a petition demanding wages, pensions and health care, and decrying government officials' repeated pay rises, said Xu Disu, one of the organisers. In December, hundreds besieged the county government office there, he said.
"The officials promise to solve our problems, but they never do, so we'll keep petitioning and petitioning until they do," said Xu, a retired elementary school teacher in his late sixties.
"I am old and I'm so angry. I'll keep doing this [until] I pass away if they don't listen," he said by phone on Friday.
This rumble of teacher unrest across China's rural centre shows the strains on China's ruling Communist Party as growth slows, jobs shrink and public rancour stirs.
And all in a year when the Party faces the sensitive 20th anniversary of the military crackdown on pro-democracy protests in and around Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.
The teachers' grievances festered for decades. But their reach and co-ordination have grown lately, helped as the Internet and mobile phones extend into once-isolated villages.
"Before it was teachers in one township joining up. But now they're uniting across counties, cities and even provinces," said Liu Feiyue, who runs a one-man rights advocacy office, Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch, in central Hubei province.
"The protests will continue in 2009, because the financial crisis gives the government more excuse to put off a solution."
A HARMONIOUS SOCIETY
The aged teachers are part of a mosaic of local discontent unsettling officials. A Chinese Academy of Social Sciences report late last year said there were over 80,000 protests, riots and other "mass incidents" in 2007, compared to over 60,000 in 2006.
Last year "did not allow for optimism", it added.
Nor does 2009, say many officials and experts.
Liu estimated that nationwide last year there were over 1,000 sit-ins and mass petitions each mobilising hundreds or thousands of former rural teachers, a jump on past years.
One sit-in in eastern Shandong province in December drew about 4,000 to the provincial Party headquarters, he said, and an earlier one in northwest Shaanxi province attracted 2,000. These numbers are difficult to check, but pictures on Liu's website (www.msguancha.com) showed hundreds of protesters in Shaanxi.
Recently, too, growing numbers of working teachers have struck for higher pay in dozens of places, including 6,000 in Loudi, Hunan, in December, according to Liu and other reports.
But this wave of demonstrations, petitions and strikes also shows the limits of grassroots unrest, making it a distracting and nettlesome worry for leaders, but far from a mortal threat.
While the mostly retired agitators rail at local officials, they proclaim loyalty to the Communist Party and its leaders. And while their organisational strength has grown, their grievances and efforts remain mostly local, avoiding bigger political demands. This is no revolution in the making.
"I don't know what crime I committed," said Zhu Jun, 61, a former teacher from eastern Jiangsu province who said she was recently detained by police for leading protests there.
"We only want national leaders to keep their promises. We only want a harmonious society," she said, echoing one of President Hu Jintao's key phrases.
Most of the aggrieved teachers are in their 60s or older and poorly educated, and took up jobs as "community" (minban) teachers in the countryside in Mao Zedong's era when there were very few fully-trained ones available.
From the 1980s, China began to spend more state money on rural schools but also demanded teachers on the state payroll have proper qualifications.
Many who failed to scramble into the new hierarchy say they were abandoned without pensions, health care or dignity after giving their best years to poorly paid teaching. Many also say officials handed state-funded teaching jobs to kin and cronies, ignoring qualifications and seniority.
The ex-teachers said their anger with official privilege and corruption, as much as economic hardship, drove them to mobilise.
"We see all the corruption and how they [officials] make all the money, and that leaves us feeling out of balance," said Chen Ming, 62, from Shandong, who said he was held by police for 10 days last month for helping to organise demonstrations and applying in Beijing to hold a protest march for 5,000 teachers.
Liu, the rights advocate, estimated that about 1 million teachers across a dozen provinces were forced out by the changes.
But the aged teachers are not the government's only worry.
This week, a senior agricultural official, Chen Xiwen, said 20 million rural migrant workers had lost their jobs in the economic slowdown. He said officials should not use force to stifle potential unrest.
That may be difficult. Officials also face volatile protests, strikes and mass petitions over land disputes, corruption, police and court abuses and pollution.
But the real challenge to state control, some say, comes not from the sheer numbers of brief, local protests, but the longer-term likelihood that citizens will yoke their grievances to broader political demands.
"The financial crisis is really just a background factor to these broader social changes," said Xu Zhiyong, a Beijing law lecturer and rights advocate.
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