Hundreds of contract teachers from two regions of China have attempted to lobby central authorities in Beijing with high-profile complaints about their pay and conditions, according to members of the group.
More than 200 non-civil service teachers from the central province of Hubei arrived at the education ministry Nov. 15 to complain about work conditions, as a similar attempt was launched in the eastern province of Jiangsu.
The Hubei teachers set off for the Chinese capital via a number of routes, although dozens were detained on the way, according to a teacher who made it to Beijing.
"They escorted a group home yesterday evening, and then another group was taken back this morning," said a Hubei-based teacher surnamed Wang.
Many petitioners who travel to Beijing to complain are picked up by officials from their hometowns, who run representative offices in the capital for this purpose, and are then escorted back home, where they can face beatings, surveillance, and further detention.
One group of around 30 teachers that managed to get into the education department in Beijing said they were still waiting to be seen by officials there.
"The purpose of this trip is to ask the central government to put pressure on the local government over the situation of non-state teachers," the group leader surnamed Yang said.
"We asked to see the education minister but we didn't get approval for that."
"We were waiting outside the gates this morning when they opened them. There are officials from our hometown who have been keeping watch over us the whole time."
Teachers in China can be hired on civil service or non-civil service contracts, and those on the latter frequently complain of wages that are below a minimum living standard and often go unpaid for months.
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. But cash-strapped local authorities have dragged their feet over the new rules.
Yang said this attempt to complain about their treatment had not gone well.
"There was a complaints section leader who very rudely pulled a teacher by the arm and pushed him to the ground," he said.
"The teacher has high blood pressure, so this was very dangerous. They were very uncivilized, and said we should get him out of there," Yang said.
An official who answered the phone at the complaints department of the education ministry confirmed that the teachers had visited.
"Some are still here, and some have already left," the official said.
Wang said local officials had told them that their complaint was illegal.
"They said you have made us look stupid," he said. "They said that mass petitioning was illegal."
In Jiangsu, a high school teacher not involved in the protest said he had heard that pay for non-state teachers had been low for a long time.
"The salaries are low. They have been very low for a while," Wang said.
"I have also heard from the teachers that they haven't been paid for a long time. They haven't actually had any money."
He said that non-state student teachers in Jiangsu's Pei county, one of the richest counties in China, could expect a salary of around 900 yuan (U.S. $135) a month, while more experienced teachers earned 1,200 yuan (U.S. $180) a month.
But he said skyrocketing prices made it hard to live on such an income, even if it was paid on time.
"The government shouldn't be richer than the people," he said. "This is supposed to be a rich county, but they can't even pay the ordinary people's salaries."
"The teachers are being treated worse than manual laborers," he said. "There's obviously a problem here."
One Jiangsu contract teacher surnamed Liu said he felt extremely disappointed at his treatment by the government.
"We have been working in education for several decades now," Liu said. "The government promised us years ago that non-state teachers would be moved to civil service terms."
"The documents came through and everything, but it was never implemented. How can we rest easy?" he said.
China’s army of petitioners 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.
Reported in Mandarin by Fang Yuan and in Cantonese by Fung Yat-yiu. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.