Hundreds of laid-off teachers converged on government buildings in the eastern Chinese province of Jiangsu on Thursday in protest at the government's refusal to honor promises to give them civil servant status.
Carrying red banners bearing a single character, "Injustice," and a banner which read simply "We need to eat," the teachers marched to the headquarters of the Jiangsu provincial government to demand better pensions and health insurance.
An unknown number were detained amid scuffles with police and the more than 1,000 laid-off and retired teachers from several counties and cities in the province.
A protester from Jiangsu's Xuzhou city surnamed Li said: "We have come here to the provincial government, but none of the leaders will come out to meet us."
He said officials from the provincial education bureau and complaints office had said it would be "difficult" to meet protesters' demands.
Teachers in China can be hired on civil service or non-civil service contracts, and those employed on the latter frequently complain of wages that are below a minimum living standard and that often go unpaid for months.
They also frequently complain of a lack of pensions and other benefits after retirement, or when they are laid off.
Directive No. 32, issued by the central authorities in 1997, called on local governments to put all teachers on civil service contracts, which carry higher wages and more benefits, including a retirement pension.
But cash-strapped local authorities have dragged their feet over the new rules.
"Some of the teachers who came from Xuzhou today were taken away by police. They were held in the provincial government offices by a group of police officers," Li said.
"There was also a 76-year-old protester from Yangzhou who was shoved to the ground and had to be taken to Nanjing Emergency Medical Center," he added.
According to Li, many of Jiangsu's teachers only got into teaching because of a recruitment drive by Beijing, and have now been left with no income years later.
The majority of Thursday's protesters had served as teachers for between 10 and 30 years, with one non-civil-service teacher serving for 42 years.
"If they won't resolve it, then they won't resolve it," Li said. "They are unreasonable. They received us very politely at the provincial education bureau, but what use is it to argue with them?"
"They said we are asking local governments to implement a central government directive, and the local governments say the ball is in their court," he said.
According to the Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch website, police had already prevented large numbers of minban, or non-civil service teachers, from protesting in Nanjing city, which marked the anniversary of the massacre by Japanese troops in 1937 last week.
Army of petitioners
China's army of petitioners, who often include former teachers, say they are repeatedly stonewalled, detained in "black jails," beaten, and harassed by authorities if they try to take complaints against local government actions to higher levels of government.
A second protester from Jiangsu's Wuxi city surnamed Song said police had threatened to detain him after he took part in petitioning efforts organized via the popular chatroom application QQ.
"I petitioned about this online, but then the police came to my home and said that any issues I had should be dealt with locally," Song said. "They didn't want me to petition to a higher level of government."
"After I told the minban teachers' group on QQ about it, [the police] came to my home twice, saying that I was inciting people and that they'd detain me if I didn't stop," he said.
Song said the local government has never addressed the issue of minban teachers, however.
"I tried the city government, but they said they didn't have my documents, and ... the provincial government said they needed this and that document," he said.
"It's been going on for 20-odd years now."
Song said he now receives a redundancy payment of just 20 yuan (U.S. $3.20) per month, after more than 20 years' service.
"It's just not enough to live on," he said.
Tugging and shoving
Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch founder Liu Feiyue said several hundred police were mobilized to disperse the crowd.
"They tried to forcibly remove the teachers to the area around the complaints office, but the teachers refused to cooperate," Liu told RFA.
"Several police had to lift a single person, and there was a lot of tugging and shoving," he said. "By noon, all the teachers were outside the complaints office."
He cited the case of a 60-year-old man who was designated a "temporary" teacher by the authorities, even after 20 years' service.
"They just want to have something to live on, and the ability to see a doctor if they are sick," Liu said. "That's why they are petitioning the government."
Repeated calls to the Jiangsu provincial government offices rang unanswered during office hours on Thursday.
An official who answered the phone at the provincial government complaints office declined to comment.
Thursday's protest came just two days after a demonstration by minban teachers in the southern city of Shanwei, Guangdong province, over pay and benefits.
Some 300 retired teachers staged a silent sit-in under umbrellas outside government offices in Guangdong's Haifeng county on Tuesday, carrying banners calling for "equal work, equal rewards."
Local media said their petition was "received" by local officials.
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.