Elderly residents who took to the streets of Shanghai earlier this week in a dispute with the authorities over their pay and pensions called on Friday for the release of a fellow activist jailed on charges of disrupting public order.
Zhang Weimin, 64, was handed a three-year jail term by a court in Shanghai earlier this month, activists said, after he spearheaded a campaign on behalf of thousands of Shanghai residents who say they have been paid lower wages since their return to the city in the wake of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).
Millions of urban Chinese youth were sent "down to the countryside" in the Mao era to live in remote farming communities, and many found it hard to return because they had lost their urban registration papers.
Activists say an estimated 40,000 Shanghai youth were sent to the remote western region of Xinjiang in the 1960s and 1970s during that period, and those who had managed to return had continued to be paid lower wages, in spite of living in one of China's most expensive cities.
Zhang was jailed for "gathering a crowd to disturb public order," a decision which brought more than 1,000 former "rusticated youth" out onto the city's streets on Wednesday.
Carrying banners which read "Zhang Weimin is innocent," and "Petitioning is not a crime," the group shouted slogans outside the municipal government offices, prompting the authorities to send in hundreds of police.
A standoff ensued after police tried to snatch one of their banners. But the demonstrators would not be deterred and advanced to the gates of city hall.
Clashes and detentions
Fellow petitioner Tan Lanying said she witnessed the clashes.
"They were shouting slogans calling for the release of Zhang Weimin, and the police came over to beat them," Tan said.
"There were a lot of police concealed within our group of petitioners, in plainclothes, maybe 50 or 60 of them, and there were eight police vehicles at the scene," she said.
"They were detaining anyone who was even the slightest bit uncooperative."
Petitioner Chen Enjuan said she had been in the area at the time of the demonstration.
"It was packed with people so you couldn't get through," she said. "The sidewalks were basically full of people all the way back ... to the subway station."
One of the "rusticated youth" protesters who declined to be named said on Friday that the demonstrators only had one demand.
"They want the authorities to deal fairly with them so they can sort out the problem of their income," the protester said.
The petitioners say they have been petitioning for many years to try to get the government to change their salary and pension provision in line with those enjoyed by Shanghai residents who were never shipped off to serve the ruling Communist Party in rural areas.
"Since we came back from Xinjiang ... we have become a disadvantaged group," the protester said.
"We want a Shanghai registration, Shanghai wages and Shanghai healthcare provisions," he said.
China's hukou (residence permit) system currently channels most welfare, housing support, and health care to urban residents, according to an official report released in June.
The report detailed widespread discrimination against rural hukou holders, and estimated the cost of providing equal treatment for rural-registered workers in towns at roughly 80,000 yuan (U.S. $12,340) per person.
Reported by Fang Yuan for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.