As China slashes coal jobs, miners protest in Party’s revolutionary base
BEIJING — The coal mines of Anyuan in southeastern China hold a special place in the history of the Chinese Communist Party.
It was there, nearly a century ago, that Mao Zedong and other intellectuals leading the brand-new party made their first connection with ordinary workers, helping to unionize and mobilize them for what is known as theGreat Strike of 1922.
On Tuesday, though, hundreds of coal miners from Anyuan and nearby mines marched through the city of Pingxiang in a protest — not on behalf of the Communist Party but against it.
China announced Monday that it expects to slash 1.8 million jobs in its coal and steel sectors, about 15 percent of the total workforce, as it struggles to reduce overcapacity in its bloated mining and industrial enterprises amid a deepening economic slowdown.
But the miners in Anyuan and other districts of Pingxiang are already hurting. The local state-owned mining company has scaled back production, laid off workers and told others to stay home — with dramatically reduced pay of just 470 yuan ($70) a month.
About 150 miners got together Monday morning to complain to the company, gathering at a crossroads and temporarily blocking traffic, according to the Communist Party propaganda department of the Pingxiang Mining Group.
Up to 1,000 workers from three mines marched through the streets Tuesday with banners reading “Workers want to survive, workers need to eat,” according to social-media posts and witnesses.
“How do you survive on 470 yuan?” said one 30-year-old worker contacted by telephone who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. “My parents and grandparents worked at the mine. The workers built the mine with their hands. It is where Mao Zedong led the Great Strike, and that’s how the Communist Party rose — and now this?”
There has been a dramatic increase in strikes and worker protests across China in the past six months as the economic slowdown has started to bite. But the significance of those protests spreading to Anyuan will not be lost on anyone steeped in the Communist Party’s founding stories and myths.
In the years after the 1922 strike, Anyuan became the center of the party’s labor mobilization and was known as “China’s Little Moscow” for its revolutionary credentials.
Former mine workers joined peasants from nearby rural areas in the 1927 Autumn Harvest Uprising, a short-lived insurrection led by Mao.
A painting of a heroic-looking young Mao on his way to Anyuan became one of the most important images to be circulated during China’s Cultural Revolution, with an estimated 900 million copies printed.
Part of the reason the painting was so widely circulated may have been to discredit Liu Shaoqi, a former close associate of Mao’s who actually played a much larger role in organizing workers in Anyuan. Liu was purged during the early years of the Cultural Revolution and died soon afterward.
In 2002, a large statue of a young Mao was erected outside the mine to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the five-day strike, which involved 10,000 miners and 4,000 to 5,000 railway workers.
Miners contacted by telephone Tuesday said the mines had been in trouble for years. One said his salary was only a little over 1,000 yuan before the latest shutdown. Another said the company had told him to take three years’ leave to do some business of his own.
But the situation came to a head when the Pingxiang Mining Group ordered the mines completely closed during the recent Spring Festival, workers said. The company also ordered production to remain shuttered at some mines in March, during a two-week period when top Communist Party officials gather in Beijing for twin plenary meetings known as the “Two Sessions.”
Workers said the company had told them that the mines would remain closed because work safety requirements had been tightened during this period, and presumably it wanted to avoid any embarrassing headlines about mining accidents during such an important gathering.
China’s minister for human resources and social security, Yin Weimin, said at a news conference Monday that 1.3 million coal workers and 500,000 steelworkers could lose their jobs. The government has set aside 100 billion yuan ($15.3 billion) over two years to relocate these and other laid-off workers.
“The economy faces relatively big downward pressures, and some firms face difficulties in production and operation, which would lead to insufficient employment,” Yin said.
On Tuesday, mine workers in Pingxiang said the company had told them to wait 10 days for an answer to their complaints.
Xu Yangjingjing contributed to this report.