11/08/2005, 00.00
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Shenzhen: Army veterans press ahead with protest

More than 3,000 people persist in their battle for wages owed. They are also calling for the liberation of two military colleagues. The town mayor was insulted and waylaid in the street after meeting with demonstrators.

Shenzhen (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Army veterans are pressing ahead with their protest in Shenzhen, calling for wages owed and the liberation of two colleagues, former military men like themselves, who were arrested last week. Public security forces in anti-riot gear were forced to intervene last night to free the mayor who was insulted and waylaid by protesters after an evening meeting.

Xu Zongheng, the mayor of Shenzhen, held an urgent meeting last night at a local school in Futian district with more than 3,000 workers of a state-owned enterprise. The workers - most of them former members of the People's Liberation Army's engineer corps – are unhappy about the wages compensation established during the latest reform of state-owned enterprises. They also demanded the authorities release two colleagues arrested last week for arguing with government officials.

During the meeting, the mayor promised to review the compensation scales and pleaded with the demonstrators to end their protest: the politician assured them that none of those who took part in the protest would be sacked for the next three years because of their participation.

The dissatisfied veterans started to insult the mayor as he was leaving the school: shortly afterwards they blocked the car he was leaving in. Anti-riot police intervened and dispersed the crowd however hundreds of protesters marched as far as the police station calling for the release of their companions.

The incident proved highly embarrassing for the Shenzhen authorities, who have tried to cover up what happened: many journalists from Hong Kong were apprehended Sunday 6 November when they tried to report on the charges leveled by the veterans and they were released only yesterday afternoon.

The veterans were deployed to work on modernization of the south of the country in 1993. Because of their engineering expertise, they were recruited to help build the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone and responsibility for their pay was transferred to a state-owned construction company. The company was badly run and its funds squandered by the management, which was accused of corruption. The local government decided to turn it into a private business last year.

One of the protesters, Li, said government auditors found the company to be on the brink of bankruptcy and much of its money was missing. Not one member of the company's management can be traced, although they have left enormous debts behind. "I should be able to receive 500,000 yuan (around 50,000 euros) in compensation, but the management is now only offering me 50,000 yuan. I have shed blood and sweat for the development of Shenzhen and this is how they reward me," he said.

On 25 October, a group of exasperated workers kidnapped the company vice-director, Lin Xinyao, and asked for his guarantee that the workers would be paid. His family reported the case to the police and Lin was released the following day.  

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