ZENGCHENG, China (Reuters) - In a backstreet pool hall in southern China’s factory belt, young migrant workers gather around the tables, their eyes flitting between the worn green baize and the anti-riot police patrolling the grimy alleys.
The police search cars at roadblocks just outside in Dadun, an urban village in the city of Zengcheng, where sweatshops make so many millions of blue jeans that the city promotes itself as the “jeans capital of the world”.
“Are you a plainclothes policeman?”, one spiky haired migrant sitting on a moped outside the pool hall jokingly asks a visitor.
Weeks after workers rioted in anger over the manhandling of a 20-year-old pregnant migrant hawking wares on the street, resentment simmers and authorities are taking few chances. For three days, the migrants trashed and torched government offices, police vehicles and cars -- local symbols of authority -- before security forces overwhelmed them.
For a nation that will absorb hundreds of millions of rural migrants into cities over the coming decades, the riots that Wang inspired left an acrid taste of what could go wrong if the government mismanages this huge shift.
The ruling Communist Party, which celebrates its 90th anniversary on Friday, fought to power on the back of restive peasants. Now young migrants from the villages are making greater demands to be heard and respected in the cities.
“They look down on the outsiders, so we let them know we won’t be bullied anymore,” said a lanky 19-year-old migrant worker in Dadun, one of the many factory towns and villages that as made the Pearl River Delta, “the workshop of the world” in Guangdong province next to Hong Kong.
“People have been waiting a long time for a chance to get them back, they (security guards) discriminate against us,” he said as he watched his friends hammer away on a street fighter video game called Killer in a games parlor.
Interviews with dozens of migrants in Dadun and other nearby factory neighborhoods revealed raw resentment of harassment and shakedowns from public security teams and local security guards.
Such treatment has gone on for years, they say, even as their material conditions have improved, especially in the past two years as a tightening labor market lifted wages.
But like a ripple of strikes across Guangdong last year, the Dadun riot revealed a younger new generation of migrants still impatient with their lot in cities that can treat them as burdens or threats, not the residents they want to become.
“The police treat you differently if you’re a migrant,” said Fang Wuping, a migrant worker in Dongguan, the vast manufacturing zone next to Zengcheng.
“I can understand why they have to keep an eye out here” he added, describing a recent bout of detention by wary police.
“But when you’re singled out as a criminal like that, you get angry and think, ‘What gives you the right?'”
This generation does not share the self-sacrificing ethos of their farmer parents. They are jacked into the World Wide Web, they text like their cohorts elsewhere in the world, and their walks through the streets of Chinese cities are a direct education in the gaps in income and privilege that irk them.
Nowadays when migrant workers finish work at factories across southern China’s manufacturing belt, they slip into bleached jeans, bright T-shirts, and sequin-covered blouses that are a gaudy renunciation of rural dullness.
They disdain the plain blue jackets and canvas shoes their farmer-migrant parents usually wore and sport tattoos and dyed hair, proclaiming that this generation yearns for a future far from the villages where they were born.
“Our mentality is different from our parents’. We don’t save money like they did,” said Li Bin, a 20-year-old worker in Dongguan, who sported a mullet haircut and an earring.
“We spend it as we make it, spend it on ourselves -- restaurants, the Internet, karaoke. But in their time, people were simpler. They were saving money so they could come home.”
“I’d never go back to farming,” cut in Li’s friend, Fang Wuping. “If you threatened to kill me, I wouldn‘t. If you’re a farmer, people despise you, look down on you,” he said.
China has 153 million rural migrants working outside their hometowns. By 2009, 58.4 percent of rural migrants were born in 1980 or after, and ninety percent of this “new generation” have barely ever farmed, a National Bureau of Statistics survey found.
Wang Lianmei, the pregnant woman who guards pushed to the ground trying to move her goods off the street, will almost certainly not become China’s version of the vegetable seller in Tunisia whose mistreatment by a policewoman sparked protests that touched off the “Arab spring”.
The Communist Party is armed with fast economic growth, a powerful security apparatus and an aura of public authority to shield it from such risks. Significantly, the unrest did not spread to other nearby towns crammed with migrant workers.
But like a ripple of strikes across Guangdong province last year, the Dadun riot revealed a strong undercurrent of discontent, said Huang Yan researcher at South China Normal University in Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong, who studies unrest among migrants in the Pearl River delta.
“This is like a volcano that is dormant for a long time until it finds a point to erupt from. I‘m not saying that this is a volcano that will erupt across the entire country, but in areas where migrant workers are concentrated, there are accumulated tensions,” Huang said.
The Party is the primary symbol of authority in a country whose people have scant legal or political channels to press grievances, especially against officials, police or bosses.
China’s official trade union noted in a report last year that migrants are getting more assertive -- and more organized.
“The rights mentality of the new generation of rural migrant workers is already clearly different from the traditional rural migrants,” it said.
“There are signs that their mode of defending their rights is shifting from individual to collective action,” the report said, noting a survey that found over half of migrant workers born after 1980 said they would be willing to join in “collective action” to defend their personal interests.
China has become greatly concerned with collective action since February, cracking down on dissent in response to fears that the “Arab spring” could inspire challenges to its one-party rule, especially before the leadership succession late in 2012.
Not every migrant worker has heard of the pregnant hawker and the riot. But the incident resonated with those interviewed for this story.
Zheng Chao, 20, one of the young migrant workers milling about the recruitment stalls in a factory towns near Shenzhen, said he had heard of trouble in Zengcheng but not the details.
“It’s normal here for people to take a beating inside the factory and outside,” said Zheng, a shirtless 20-year-old from Hunan province.
“What we need is our own Chairman Mao. He was a migrant worker too,” he joked. Mao Zedong, who was from rural Hunan, worked briefly as a library assistant in Beijing before embracing a career as a communist revolutionary.
Few people in China want to revisit the chaos of Mao’s rule, although nostalgia about the Great Helmsman himself has grown recently. The frustrations of life on the fringe of urban prosperity is the kind of discontent Mao was able to channel in another era.
Four out of five of the roughly 50,000 people who live in Dadun are migrants. Wang Limin, an older migrant from Sichuan who runs his own jeans workshop, said it was the unrelenting discrimination and petty corruption with little legal recourse or help from police that was most dispiriting.
“For the entire day, they mess around with your money. If you go to apply for a residency permit, they say it’s free at first, but then they ask for more and more money. They don’t give you a free meal for nothing,” Wang said at his workshop in Dadun.
“We just want to come here to work, but they manipulate us to death. If the security guards weren’t here, things would be good,” he added. “They mess with the migrants all the time.”
Restive migrants are far from the only source of discontent in China.
The country saw almost 90,0000 “mass incidents” of riots, protests, mass petitions and other acts of unrest in 2009, according to a 2011 study by two scholars from Nankai University in north China. Some estimates go even higher.
By contrast, in 2007, China had over 80,000 mass incidents, up from over 60,000 in 2006, according to an earlier report from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Many of these outbursts sprang from farmers protesting land seizures, laid-off workers demanding better benefits, and decommissioned soldiers and rural teachers dismissed from jobs.
But the protests by migrant workers pose a tricky challenge for a government steering China toward bigger cities and fewer farmers.
China’s urban population is projected to expand up to 400 million by 2040, Han Jun, a policy expert who advises the government said last year. That means cities will absorb 15 million new residents every year, many of them rural migrants.
They will need jobs, housing, hospitals and schools for their children. More will also hunger for the sense of dignity and belonging that the Dadun riot showed was missing for many.
“They don’t want to live in the countryside or to farm. They imagine their future lives are in the cities, so their sense of relative poverty and deprivation is also stronger,” said Cai He, a sociologist at Zhongshan University in Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong, who studies rural migrant workers.
“In recent years, rural migrants’ wages have risen quickly, but after all this is a floating group,” said Cai.
“It lacks roots ... in the cities, and lacks a sense of security, and it’s also difficult for them to feel secure about their futures.”
At the prodding of the central government, local governments are trying to make it easier for migrants to send their children to state-funded schools, and get other social-welfare benefits.
The “City Garden” apartment complex in Dongguan, a factory-filled city next to Zengcheng, embodies the kind of life poor migrants yearn for. Its residents are skilled workers, such as Song Xiaoyong, a 34-year-old quality control technician.
“He’ll be able to go to school here, but that’s impossible for poorer families,” Song said of his two-year-old son, who was cared for by his parents from the central province of Hubei.
Zhang Qin, a poor young migrant worker in Dadun from the poor, southwest province of Guizhou, said her two daughters were unlikely to get into any local school and she would probably send them back to her home village for schooling, a choice many migrant workers have to make.
“There’s no money to be made back home. You have to work even harder,” Zhang said as she worked with a pair of seamstress scissors trimming garments.
“Urbanizing” rural migrants so they can get schooling and welfare roughly equal to that of established city residents would cost the government about 80,000 yuan ($12,340) for each migrant, the recent government think tank study of rural migration said.
That does not even include housing, which is what worries Niu Xiaoling, a skinny 27-year-old from rural Sichuan in southwest China.
“To get a girl, you need a house and to have a career, but nowadays it’s so expensive to pay for a home,” Niu said. “Even in my village, a house would cost at least 100,000 yuan.”
He and other frustrated migrant workers talk about moving to another part of China, where they might get better pay and the cost of living might be lower. But nobody wants to go back to home villages where off-farm work is scarce.
An old Chinese proverb says a falling leaf always returns to its roots. Wang Jiaoguang, a 48-year-old former farmer from Hunan province who works in south China’s factory belt, says he’s not so sure that applies to the younger generation.
“It’s not good to know you have no roots anymore.”
Editing by Bill Tarrant