Hundreds of retired miners in the central Chinese province of Hunan protested for the second day on Wednesday amid a dispute over housing and pensions that prompted the attempted suicide of a local activist.
Li Yonghui, a retired worker at a mine run by the Hunan Black Gold Era Changsha Mining Co. in Ningxiang county, was taken to the hospital after swallowing an overdose of sleeping pills on Tuesday following a clash between protesters and the mine's security guards, his relatives said.
"Li Yonghui took the medicine and [the security guards] could have snatched it away from him, but they let him take it," Li's wife said in an interview on Wednesday. "Some young lads called an ambulance for us, instead."
"He is out of danger now, for the time being, and is no longer in a coma," she said. "But he is still sleeping very deeply.... The doctors say he needs to be under observation."
A fellow activist and retired worker surnamed Hu said Li took the overdose after the pensioners tried to meet with management on Tuesday, only to be surrounded and sworn at by security guards, who beat Li when he tried to intervene on behalf of several elderly women who were being beaten.
A second worker surnamed Wu said a number of elderly women had been attacked by security guards.
"As soon as they saw them at the gates, they started beating them," Wu said. "Their clothes were ripped and they had injuries to their backs, legs and on the rest of their bodies."
Hu said workers had continued to gather outside the company offices, calling on the management to respond to Li's beating.
The company responded by calling in police and security reinforcements to disperse the crowds, whereupon Li took the overdose, he said.
"There were four or five carloads of police and a dozen or more private security guards," Hu said. "Li Yonghui took more than 40 sleeping pills."
"The police did nothing to stop him; they just took photos of him," he said. "He lay there on the ground for 20 minutes and they did nothing to help him; we had to call the ambulance ourselves."
Retirement benefits and accommodation fees
The clash between the pensioners and security guards on Tuesday sparked a protest Wednesday by several hundred retirees, who blocked the gates of the mine and gathered around the entrance to the office buildings.
The pensioners had begun pursuing the authorities for two months over their retirement benefits, which have shrunk in real terms amid skyrocketing inflation, Hu said.
He said the mine had acquired a private-sector partner after the state-run company that operated it had gone bankrupt.
Wu said around 700 to 800 people came out in protest at rising rents being charged for their accommodation—which had been originally intended only intended as temporary housing—before going to visit Li at the hospital.
Li's wife also said she had seen around 700 to 800 people outside the Black Gold Era offices on Wednesday morning.
"It went on until about midday," Wu said. "Right now, we are off to the Ningxiang County People's Hospital to visit the workers' representative who took sleeping tablets."
Wu said the retirees had been charged what they saw as arbitrary fees for "improvements to temporary housing."
"The cost of housing is too high now," he said. "We have been to the municipal government complaints office in Changsha, to the ... [ruling Chinese Communist] Party committee for discipline inspection, everywhere, but with no response."
Calls to the Hunan Black Gold Era Changsha Mining Co. offices went unanswered during office hours on Wednesday.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.