More than 1,000 former projectionists, who once screened propaganda films full-time for the ruling Chinese Communist Party, staged a sit-in outside government offices in the central province of Hunan on Tuesday over a lack of retirement benefits.
The protesters gathered outside the offices of the Hunan provincial State Administration of Press, Publications, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT), and the headquarters of Hunan provincial TV, which are housed in the same compound in the provincial capital Changsha.
"We worked all those years for the government, the Communist Party, and they haven't paid us a cent in pension, nor have they given us any explanation," a protester at the scene surnamed Wu told RFA.
"There are more than 1,000 people here, or thereabouts."
Wu said that China's cabinet, the State Council, had ordered local governments to do something to ease the plight of retired propaganda projectionists in 2007, but that its directive was never implemented at the local level.
"We haven't heard a word from the provincial government, and this has dragged on and on, and nobody will take responsibility," he said.
Wu said previous government offers of between 60 and 120 yuan (U.S.$10-20) a month in welfare payouts were inadequate.
'Acting within the law'
An estimated 8,000 retired film projectionists live in rural Hunan, birthplace of late supreme leader Mao Zedong, after years spent traveling from commune to commune, screening propaganda films to villagers, often using just a sheet suspended in a public space.
The advent of widely available home video technology in the 1980s made their jobs obsolete, but the projectionists were left to return to their farms and fend for themselves, according to a 2013 report in the Epoch Times newspaper.
In June 2013, some 5,000 film projectionists announced they would resign from the Communist Party in protest, but subsequent attempts to seek a resolution in Beijing came to nothing, they told RFA.
Xin Shu, a protester who gave 23 years of service to the party as a projectionist, said the local authorities had sent out a dozen or so police, who were standing by and watching.
"They're not taking any action towards us, because we haven't behaved in a threatening or even an excitable manner," Xin Shu, who gave only a nickname, said.
"We are acting entirely within the law, within the regulations."
"Nobody is shouting slogans, and there are no banners," he said. "We are just strongly calling on the government to resolve the issue of retired projectionists' livelihoods effectively, and as soon as possible."
But he added: "They are the government. They can do whatever they want."
'Hard to get by'
Another retired projectionist, who gave only the nickname Bing Shu, said he is being held under house arrest to prevent him from attending.
"All I can do is sit here at home, as I'm under surveillance," Bing Shu said.
He said many of the retirees are finding it hard to get by.
"We're not asking for much," Bing Shu said. "Just for them to ease our situation a bit."
Calls to the Hunan provincial government offices rang unanswered during office hours on Tuesday.
But Wu said the protesters plan to stay as long as they can.
"Whatever happens today, we're not leaving this place," he said. "We won't leave today if the government doesn't give us a response."
He said a representative of the SAPPRFT had met briefly with five of the protest leaders on Tuesday, but with no result.
"They were very polite. They basically said they want to help us, but ... that they don't have the power to decide these things," Wu said.
A fellow protester surnamed Liu said he had worked as a projectionist for his local village government for 30 years, but still receives no proper pension.
"We get a small subsistence payment, as if we were a different type of person," Liu said. "Our only demand is that they give us 700-800 yuan (U.S.$120-130) a month."
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wong Lok-to for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.