BEIJING -- Profound labor unrest shook two cities in northern China's "rust belt" Wednesday as unpaid and laid off workers protested, overturning a car and massing 10,000-strong to face off with military police.
In Liaoyang, an industrial center in northeastern Liaoning province, columns of military police protected the city government office -- on Democracy Road -- and broke up protests.
Witnesses, who estimated the crowd at 10,000, said there were no injuries, but city officials denied there were any protests at all.
"Nothing has happened. It's quiet outside," said a spokesman at the Liaoyang city office.
Hundreds of armed officers were reportedly blanketing the area and ringing the building around the clock.
In Daqing, a famed oil town in northern China's frigid Heilongjiang province, witnesses said workers -- many of them laid off -- demonstrated in front of the provincial branch of China National Petroleum Corp. when a traffic accident took place.
Protesters surged forward and overturned a gray Chinese-made Santana, one witness said. It was not clear who was inside the vehicle.
"I don't know what happened to the victims and the driver," said a traffic police officer reached by telephone. He did not give his name.
Such demonstrations, which have been growing in the region since early this month, are unusual in China, where the government keeps a tight rein on protests and uses threats and force to discourage any anti-government activism.
However, the government has also acknowledged that workers, once revered as the "vanguard of the proletariat," are suffering from widespread closures of inefficient and outdated state firms.
"Owed salaries and severance payments are just part of the reason. The real problem is that the life of laid-off workers is too difficult," said Ma, a Liaoyang resident who works for a private factory but knows many of the protesters. He gave only his surname.
"People are angry because they feel the government used them and then threw them away," Ma said.
Protesters carried red banners and a portrait of Mao Zedong mounted on a small chariot. One banner said, "Laid-off workers of the Ferroalloy Factory protest against factory bankruptcy and demand payment of owed salaries," said the woman, who refused to give her name.
She said the number of protesters had increased by several thousand since Monday, with throngs crowding Democracy Road and the narrow streets nearby each morning. She said the protests have been peaceful so far, but "such a big crowd of protesters really shocked us."
Ma, the worker from the Jian An Machine Factory, said protests began with workers from Liaoyang Ferroalloy Factory but expanded this week to include laid off workers from other plants.
Farmers even joined in to protest not being paid by bankrupt factories that were built on their lands, said Ma. Protesters are angry at Liaoyang Ferroalloy Factory for refusing to pay workers severance pay of $500 a year. Ma said former workers feel they were cheated by factory managers in collusion with corrupt local officials.
The demonstrations in Liaoyang escalated last week with the arrest of protest leader Yao Fuxin, who was detained by plainclothes police Thursday, according to the China Labor Bulletin. Yao, 54, has led workers at the Liaoyang Ferroalloy Plant for the last four years since operators declared bankruptcy, it said.