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Blasts rock Chinese buildings; 18 die

A series of apparently coordinated blasts killed at least 18 people in an industrial city 120 miles south of Beijing early Friday, sending riot police into the streets and sparking rumors that laid-off factory workers were wreaking revenge.

China's state media reported that early-morning explosions ripped through several residential buildings in Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei province. It said 18 people had died in one of the explosions, which leveled a five-story building housing dozens of families near the city's No. 3 Cotton Mill. Meanwhile, the Associated Press and Reuters news agencies both reported that at least three buildings were hit by blasts within an hour of each other.

By late Friday, the cause of the blasts had not yet been reported. The death toll, however, is expected to rise.

The blasts came a day after Prime Minister Zhu Rongji apologized to the nation for an explosion that killed 42 people, most of them schoolchildren, in rural Jiangxi province. The government has blamed that blast on a deranged suicide bomber, though local residents say that children were assembling fireworks in the school at the time.

Guns are tightly controlled in China, but explosives are relatively easy to come by in a country pocked with construction sites and mines. As a result, bombs have become the weapon of choice for seeking revenge or expressing discontent by a broad swath of angry people, from spurned lovers to separatist terrorists in the country's Far West.

Shijiazhuang is in the middle of China's cotton belt and is a center of the country's beleaguered state-owned textile mills, which the government has been shaving down in its effort to rid itself of money-losing enterprises. Three years ago, Beijing vowed to radically reduce the number of the textile industry's "spindles," a measure used for yarn spinning machines, and it has made good on its word. By the end of last year, 9.4-million cotton spindles had been scrapped, according to a government report.

But with those spindles went 1.4-million workers, most of whom were turned out with only subsistence pay that ends after three years. Many workers complain the financially strapped enterprises that lay them off never pay at all.

The textile industry's problem is repeated in many other industries, particularly sugar and steel mills, that long depended on handouts from the state but are now being forced to survive on their own.

It is all part of Zhu's reform program that was intended to make the state sector profitable by the end of last year. While Zhu claimed victory at this year's annual session of the National Peoples Congress, which ended Thursday, many more state enterprises are expected to close, sending millions more workers into an economy ill-equipped to deal with them.

The financial squeeze on money-losing state enterprises has led to increasingly common protests by angry workers, who have either not been paid or have been laid off without what they think is adequate compensation. More than 20,000 laid-off workers at a defunct molybdenum mine in northeastern China's Liaoning province rioted last June over low severance packages. Troops were called in to quell the violence. And 1,000 workers took to the streets in Shanghai this month to protest layoffs at a tire factory.

Besides disgruntled workers, criminal gangs have also been on the rise in China, helping push up the still modest crime rate.

Shijiazhuang has been the scene of bombings before. In September, the city was rocked by a series of explosions from crude bombs that injured 28 people. No one was killed, but one man was arrested and sentenced to death.

China's Xinhua news agency published a photograph Friday showing rescue workers clambering over a pile of rubble at the first blast site. Residents reached by telephone described a tense city with riot police patrolling areas around the blasts.