In China, workers log on to sound off

When Jiang Dabao lost his right hand to a molding machine three years ago, his factory boss said he wasn't eligible for workers' compensation. Unemployable, Jiang whiled away his days in the Internet bars that thrive here in China's manufacturing heartland.

Eventually he tapped into an online forum on QQ, a popular social networking service, where he found a workers advocacy group that helped him win a $30,000 settlement.

"Before I got hurt, I had no idea how to use a computer or even the Internet," said Jiang, who identified himself by his childhood nickname for fear of official reprisal.

Forums such as the one used by Jiang have become the Chinese proletariat's equivalent of Facebook or Twitter. And the conversations taking place on those channels are seen by some as the faint beginnings of a labor movement, and one that might have muscle.

Authorities and factory owners are eyeing the networks warily. Sites dedicated to grievances have been shut down, and stories about worker demonstrations are regularly deleted, according to labor advocates.

Web administrators say they have been pressured by companies to remove sensitive posts. And QQ forums are capped at 100 users, making mass mobilization more difficult.

Still, the potential remains for groups to organize through social networking.

University students used the Internet last year to lead boycotts of French goods before the Olympic Games. Authorities also alleged that exiled separatists used the Internet to urge ethnic Uighurs to riot in China's western Xinjiang province last month; the government responded by cutting Web access in the region for days.

"When there's a crisis, it can be activated," said Jack Qiu, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who follows the Internet in China. "Nobody can predict when the Chinese working class will have uproar. It may be once in a lifetime, but if it happens, it will change everything."

Until only a few years ago, factory workers were left out of the Internet boom. But that all changed with the explosion of Internet cafes and cheap cellphones that enabled users to go online, mostly to use their QQ accounts.

"We can communicate with more people so much easier," said Viviana Ding, a 25-year-old employee at a Shenzhen glass factory. "Before, all we could do was talk to one person on our cellphones."

Unlike Facebook or Twitter, which have been blocked by censors in China for months, the worker sites use Chinese interfaces and are simple to master.

The allure of these new communication tools is apparent on the outskirts of Shenzhen. Beyond the gates of one of the world's largest electronics factories, operated by Foxconn Technology Group, are countless cellphone stores, many blasting dance music in hopes of attracting the swarms of young workers milling outside.

On the ground floors of densely packed apartment buildings are dimly lighted Internet bars, where off-duty workers wearing headsets pound away at keyboards, playing games and chatting with friends for about 40 cents an hour.

In Longhua, just north of Shenzhen's city center and minutes from Hong Kong, the Foxconn workers are easily identified by their polo shirts and company badges. College educated, they work in offices or have skilled assembly line jobs, either way with long hours and lackluster pay.

Zeng Zhaolue used to work for Foxconn until he quit a year ago to open a bar near the factory. Four years ago, he established www.foxlife.cn, a bulletin board frequented by about 65,000 Foxconn employees. He had less than half that many users only two years ago.

The site offers snapshots into the daily lives of Foxconn workers, from petty complaints about colleagues showing off pricey cellphones to photos of trash piling up outside a worker dormitory.

But there are also lists of unreported accidents, and sharp jabs at supervisors of the Taiwanese company.

"I am working at Foxconn now and there are many dark sides," someone named Szsky wrote recently. "Everything here is decided by the Taiwanese. Even if they fart we have to say it's fragrant."

Then there was the suicide of Sun Danyong.

The 25-year-old migrant jumped off his 12-story apartment building this summer after being accused of losing a top-secret prototype of Apple Inc.'s next-generation iPhone.

Foxconn is a major manufacturer of Apple products, and days before Sun's death was publicly reported, factory employees were logging on to Foxlife and posting gossip.

"The Apple orders for that section were up," one message said. "I hope he didn't do it because of work pressure."

Foxconn did not respond to requests for an interview.

Discussions about factory suicides also percolated on www.hwzte.com, a shared forum for workers of telecom giants Huawei Technologies Co. and ZTE Corp.

Zeng said his forum was independent of the company, though he knows Foxconn officials monitor the site. Two years ago, he said, a manager contacted him and asked him to remove photographs of employees sleeping in a mailroom. Zeng complied.

"There are better places to deal with grievances than my website," said Zeng, 29. "I have to have a sense of how much [criticism] can be allowed."

Another site aimed at workers is www.zggr.cn, an acronym for "Chinese worker." The leftist website aggregates news stories about worker strife and dedicates a section to zibenjia, a revolutionary term for capitalists.

More than 1,000 news posts are added each month, mostly sent in by employees of state-owned factories whose lives have been upended by the march toward privatization.

"Mainstream [Chinese] media can't publish these stories, and many Web portals delete them," said Yan Yuanzhang, the site's founder.

Yan straddles a fine line. Three years ago, he had similar websites shut down by officials. He said his forum must appear dedicated to "research" to skirt the censors.

At the same time, Yan said he was never told to remove user comments about an executive beaten to death by workers at Tonghua Iron & Steel Group in northern China this summer. The workers were protesting the sale of their mill to a private company. The postings, in essence, said the boss had it coming.

The only explanation Yan could surmise was that officials couldn't block everything, and that letting workers blow off steam on the Internet was far more preferable than having them demonstrate on the streets.

As for the Tonghua steel factory? Officials reversed course and blocked the sale.

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david.pierson@latimes.com

Tommy Yang in The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

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