ZENGCHENG, China — Pulling out his camera, Zhu Bin grinned and pointed as he scrolled through the images. Two cars sat ablaze against a dark sky in one picture, and in the next, thick rows of police tried to keep order with riot shields.
There, on the street next to the Sun City Hotel and a karaoke bar, it looked like all hell was breaking loose on a sweltering Sunday night. Underneath the streetlights, a mob of hundreds wandered among the smoke and broken glass.
The chaos last weekend that shook this city in Guangdong province, one of China’s key industrial bases, was another in a string of especially volatile demonstrations that have swept the country in recent weeks.
The details vary, but the outbreak points to serious challenges for the Chinese Communist Party on the eve of the 90th anniversary July 1 of the party’s founding. At its root is the fact that after 30 years of rapid economic development the average Chinese has almost no legal or political means to pursue grievances against the government and those it protects.
That’s led to simmering resentment in a nation where there are profound gaps in income and privilege amid a political system whose rigid ways often fuel the very instability the system is designed to avoid.
Public discussion about the causes of the violence in Zengcheng has followed a familiar line: low wages and bad working conditions for migrant laborers — who make up more than half of Zengcheng’s 818,000 residents — whipped up by criminal gangs.
But interviews here show that the chaos was stoked by anger that had been building for years at the bullying tactics of both the “chengguan,” meter maid-like guards who are charged with enforcing municipal ordinances, and the “public security teams,” ad hoc officers cobbled together by neighborhood or village committees.
The trigger for last weekend’s rioting was the news that a pregnant migrant had been pushed to the ground — initial rumors said killed — during an altercation with security. It was a report with which migrants could easily identify.
“It’s very common for them to beat people. They’ll do it for very petty reasons,” said Zhu, 28, who came here from Anhui province and works in a shop selling mahjongg gaming tables.
Claims of injustice were a factor in other recent outbursts of rage. Among them:
—The biggest protests in 20 years to hit Inner Mongolia, in the north of China. The unrest erupted after a Han Chinese coal truck driver ran over and killed a Mongolian herder who reportedly was trying with others to block the vehicle from crossing their land on May 10. It quickly became a lightning rod for Mongolian complaints that the mining industry and local government have violated their rights and culture.
—On May 26, a businessman in the province of Jiangxi, just to the north of Guangdong, set off three coordinated car bombs that targeted government buildings and killed four people, including himself. The bomber, Qian Mingqi, launched the attacks after nearly a decade of efforts to recover compensation money that he said was taken by a local official took when the government demolished hi s house.
—Paramilitary police backed by armored vehicles flooded into a town in Hubei province two weeks ago after more than 1,500 residents laid siege to government offices to protest the death of a local legislator. Ran Jianxin, who had a reputation for investigating corruption, died during a June 4 police interrogation linked to bribery charges against him. His family circulated photos that ap peared to show the sort of bruising usually associated with torture.
In Zengcheng, the rioting began in an area known as Dadun Village — a crowded, dirty warren of fabric shops — after word spread June 10 about the 20-year-old pregnant street vendor.
Late that night, more than 100 people had gathered in front of the Dadun police station. Men threw bricks at the police and attacked their cars. Interviews suggest that while the initial protesters were mainly from Sichuan, the home province of the pregnant vendor, they were soon joined by migrants from all over.
On June 11, hundreds of people surrounded the police station again, setting cars on fire and trying to loot an ATM.
By June 12, the chaos had spread to the neighboring district of Xintang, where Zhu Bin filmed the enormous crowd facing off with police.
That moved the unrest in the direction of Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province and a crucial city for manufacturing. Scores of police mobilized, and an evening curfew was set.
Checkpoints manned by police wielding shotguns loomed on the main road outside Dadun. Guards were stacked at the gates of Phoenix City, an affluent community of apartments and villas less than 10 miles away.
The government sent teams to local factories and communities to spread the word that the woman, Wang Lianmei, was resting comfortably in a hospital. The Communist Party chief of Zengcheng was said to have personally taken her a basket of fruit.
By Monday, the situation had calmed.
Looking out at the sparkling water of the swimming pool at Phoenix City, Shi Xiangjun, a Guangzhou native and a resident of the development, said he understood why the standoff with migrant workers began.
“The gap between rich and poor is very big,” said Shi, who’s 43.
For example, apartments in Phoenix City go for 7,500 yuan per square meter, or about $170 per square foot. Villas cost 25,000 yuan per square meter, or more than $358 per square foot.
That’s far beyond the reach of Tan Tianmin, a 41-year-old migrant from Sichuan who makes 2,000 to 4,000 yuan a month — roughly between $300 and $600 — hunched over a sewing machine assembling denim jeans in the Dadun district. And that’s when business is good.
But it’s not the economic gap that upsets Tan.
“It’s OK for them to keep social order, but they should do it in a proper way,” he said. “We’re mainly unhappy with these public security teams. They should talk with the people instead of just hitting them.”