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Angry workers still rattling China

Two angry protest movements by thousands of laid-off industrial workers in China's depressed north continued Wednesday, with reports of the arrest of three underground labor leaders in one city and a car being overturned during a brief violent incident at the second protest.

The separate demonstrations in the industrial city of Liaoyang and at the oil fields of Daqing represent one of the few visible challenges to China's authoritarian rule in years, and they appeared to be attracting the attention of a government that routinely quashes dissent with a police force.

In Liaoyang, officials apparently stepped up the pressure on a group of more than 5,000 workers by detaining three protest organizers after arresting another leader Sunday, according to protesters.

The report could not be verified because foreign journalists have been barred from Liaoyang, but witnesses told the Reuters news agency that police seized Xiao Yunliang, Tang Qingxiang and Wang Zhaoming, three of about a dozen workers who had been organizing protests outside City Hall by thousands of workers against the city and a bankrupt steel industry plant for more than a week.

The number of demonstrators swelled Wednesday morning to as many as 10,000 to protest the arrest of another labor leader, 53-year-old Yao Fuxin, on Sunday.

Witnesses told the Associated Press by telephone that columns of military police had marched from City Hall to break up protests. Hundreds of armed officers were reportedly patrolling the area outside the city government complex but there were no reports of violence on the streets.

Reuters said police let about 1,000 protesters into the building and locked several representatives in a room, but workers broke in the door and released them. As they left the building, police dragged off Xiao.

Minutes later, another group of about 100 uniformed police attacked again, beating up demonstrators and hauling away Tang Qingxiang and Wang Zhaoming, a witness told Reuters.

"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.

At the second demonstration site, Daqing, several thousand protesters _ many of them laid-off oil workers _ were continuing rallies that have gone on since March 1 when a car grazed several people. The crowd grew angry and overturned the car.

China's government brooks no dissent and bans all organizations that represent a potential challenge to its rule, but it has moved cautiously to counter the protests by laid-off workers from state-owned factories who are angry at cuts in their severance pay and benefits.

Beijing has acknowledged the problems faced by workers at obsolete and bankrupt state-owned enterprises and has moved to increase the budget for payouts to the unemployed, but there are tens of millions of employees attached to outmoded factories.

As China continues its transformation from a centrally planned economy to a private enterprise system, it is calculating that it can keep unhappy workers at bay until there are enough jobs in the new economy to support them. The protests at Liaoyang and Daqing, however, illustrate how difficult that may be.