Laid-off teachers who worked for years on non-civil service contracts have protested across China in recent weeks over a lack of redundancy pay, pensions, or new job opportunities.
On Sunday, around 200 former teachers gathered outside government offices in Lu'an city, in eastern Anhui province. They were ordered to leave by police, who detained 16 people.
"Sixteen teachers have been detained by police, which I think is an inappropriate use of the law, because they used violence, in particular on the large number of women," a source close to the protests surnamed Yao told RFA on Monday. "There were three or four police officers to one person."
"Whether it is wages or other benefits, these teachers are entitled to this remuneration, which they earned with the sweat of their brow," Yao said. "Some teachers have received it, while others haven't, which is wrong."
Teachers in China can be hired on civil service or non-civil service (minban) 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 complain of a lack of pensions and other benefits after retirement, or when they are laid off.
An official who answered the phone at the Lu'an municipal education bureau on Monday confirmed the protest had taken place.
"We are dealing with this right now," an official said when contacted by RFA. "But we are still investigating, so I can't really give you a detailed picture right now. Please check our website."
Crude, basic methods
The Lu'an city government apologized at a news conference on Tuesday over the treatment of the teachers, who mostly hailed from the city's Jinan and Yu'an districts.
"At 8:40 am on [Sunday], petitioning teachers gathered at the southern gate of the Lu'an municipal government, and the number of people present kept growing," the government said in a statement.
"Comrades from the municipal party committee and the municipal government rushed to the scene to talk to the petitioning teachers without blocking their way."
Police told the teachers that they had violated petitioning regulations, and that they should immediately cease petitioning, it said.
"A small number of public security police employed crude and basic enforcement methods, and in this regard, the Lu'an People's Government expresses its sincere apology," it said, adding that a disciplinary investigation of police methods is currently under way.
But the government insisted that it doesn't owe the teachers any pay or benefits.
"The governments of Jinan and Lu'an districts strictly implemented national and provincial policies on wages, and had paid all elementary and high-school teachers' wages in full. There were no wages owing to the teachers," the statement said.
Former Anhui prosecutor-turned-rights activist Shen Liangqing said the teachers had clearly suffered a violation of their legitimate rights and interests.
"The situation of these teachers is somewhat more vulnerable than that of civil servants," Shen said. "It is perfectly normal for them to express their dissatisfaction."
"The main problem is the way governments are treating them across China," he said. "Their right to complain should be protected, but the local authorities usually act to suppress them instead."
'We are in despair'
And on May 21, more than 2,000 teachers across the northern region of Inner Mongolia took to the streets of the regional capital Hohhot, gathering in front of the government complaints department, a New York-based rights group reported this week.
The unemployed kindergarten, elementary, and high-school teachers protested the ruling Chinese Communist Party's current policy of shutting down schools offering Mongolian-medium teaching, as well as widespread layoffs of ethnic Mongolian teachers, the Southern Mongolia Human Rights and Information Center (SMHRIC) said in a report on its website.
The protesters, many of whom wore traditional Mongolian clothes, demanded reemployment, compensation, and a pension plan for unemployed teachers, it said.
"Governments at every level have failed to implement relevant laws and regulations to address the requests of minban and substitute teachers ... [while] local governments have shirked responsibility for years," SMHRIC quoted the teachers as saying in an open letter to the authorities.
"We are helpless. We are in despair. We are confused. We are pained, and we are outraged," the teachers wrote.
Since 2000, the Chinese government has put increasing pressure on the traditional way of life of ethnic Mongolians, using "ecological" migration policies to prevent them from grazing their livestock, and eliminating Mongolian-medium education in local schools, leaving many minban teachers out of work.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.