Police smothered a southern section of China’s capital with officers and paramilitary forces for a second day Thursday after a rare protest by hundreds of migrant workers, underscoring Beijing’s sensitivity over unrest fueled by anger over social inequality.
Anti-riot vans and police forces deployed around a bustling wholesale clothing market in Beijing’s Fengtai district, where protesters rallied Wednesday over the death of a 22-year-old woman from the central province of Anhui.
The woman, Yuan Liya, had worked in the mall selling clothing. Her body was found last Friday near the exit of an underground parking garage. Police ruled the death a suicide, saying Yuan jumped from the building, but protesters believe she may have been slain and say police officers have bungled the investigation.
“They sit in the police station, eat meals and get salaries paid for by the ordinary people and the taxpayers, yet they do nothing to protect the safety of our lives and property,” said Duan Xiuying, a migrant from Hebei province who also sells clothing in a nearby mall.
The notion that authorities care little about the lives of those who lack political power or wealth is common among the millions of migrants who stream into China’s huge urban centers from smaller cities or the sprawling countryside in hopes of better lives. They take low-paid jobs in factories, construction sites or in services shunned by more educated urban residents.
Or, like Yuan, they run small businesses in frenetically packed wholesale centers, selling clothing out of 60-square-foot shops, walls piled high with textiles. Sellers waving calculators haggle loudly over prices while buyers zip around dragging hand-pulled trolleys stacked with goods wrapped in black plastic and masking tape.
Whatever their work, migrants in Chinese cities, far from their families and support networks, are often treated poorly or discriminated against. Factory workers often end up with delayed or unpaid wages. Street vendors are harassed by urban administrative officials. Migrants are often unable to send their children to government schools or receive subsidized medical care at city hospitals.
On Wednesday, hundreds of migrants had gathered to pressure authorities to investigate Yuan’s case. They marched with banners and pumped their fists in the air as they shouted, “Injustice, we protest,” according to participants’ accounts and video that circulated briefly before being scrubbed off the Internet by Chinese censors.
The demonstration was in support of Yuan’s immediate family members, who had traveled to Beijing seeking an explanation for her death. A woman surnamed Zhang who identified herself as Yuan’s cousin said by phone that she has been unable to contact her relatives since they went to a police station Wednesday night.
A terse Beijing police statement issued on the public security bureau’s official Twitter-like microblog account Wednesday said foul play had been ruled out. “No suspicious signs were found after a forensic examination of the body,” the statement said. “Yuan entered the mall alone the night before she died, and had no contact with other people.”
Protesters, many of whom were also migrants working or living nearby, were not satisfied by that explanation.
“The police have handled this case irresponsibly,” said a 24-year-old electronic goods seller from Anhui who would only give his surname, Zou. “There are so many suspicious aspects of the case. I took part in yesterday’s protest to pressure the police to file a case and launch a proper investigation.”
Zou stood outside the mall Thursday with a friend also from Anhui who sold clothes at a mall in central Beijing. They watched as dozens of uniformed police stationed at the entrance kept a close eye on passersby.
Two dozen coach buses, full of police officers and paramilitary police, were parked in an open parking lot in front of the mall. Other anti-riot vehicles, some packed full of crowd control barricades, were parked along the main road. Police officers stood in large clusters along the length of the road, as well as in and around the building.
“Today the security is so tight, I don’t think anyone else will come and protest,” Zou said.
A retired government expert on rural-urban migration, Yao Jianfu, said the protest showed that authorities should provide a channel for migrant workers to air their grievances.
“We need to let them vent and communicate their feelings in an orderly, organized manner, and not just send the riot police,” Yao said. “This kind of resentment we see now can become an explosive force.”
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