updated 7/14/2008 6:16:18 PM ET 2008-07-14T22:16:18

Hundreds of migrant workers attacked a police station in eastern China after one was allegedly beaten while trying to get a residence permit, highlighting enduring tensions between temporary workers and authorities.

The three days of unrest in coastal Zhejiang province began Thursday when a crowd gathered in front of the Kanmen town police station to protest the treatment of the beaten worker, with some demonstrators throwing rocks at officers, the official Xinhua News Agency said Monday.

The Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy said the crowds burned police cars and motorcycles, demanding the release of the worker who was detained after complaining that police allegedly beat him over a quarrel about his application for a temporary residence permit.

"The government employees told me that I could not be registered without my identification card. I quarreled with them and they hit me on my head," Xinhua quoted the worker, Zhang Zhongfu, 34, as saying.

Police, however, said the Sichuan resident bumped his head against a wall while drunk.

Tension over 'hukou' system
The unrest underscored abiding tensions over China's tens of millions of migrant workers who have left the poor countryside to look for work in cities. They often settle in urban areas in violation of the nation's strict household registration — or "hukou" — system, which technically bars rural residents from moving to cities.

The riots came just two weeks after a crowd of 30,000 people in southwest China set fire to a police station over what many believed was an official cover-up of the circumstances surrounding the death of a teenage girl.

Such incidents, often triggered by allegations over corruption and official abuses, have been an embarrassment to the leadership, especially before next month's Beijing Olympics.

Chinese officials downplayed the violence in Zhejiang, saying an investigation was under way.

A woman who answered the telephone at Kanmen's public security bureau said she saw the demonstration but denied that the workers broke into the police station or burned vehicles. The woman, who did not give her name as is common with officials in China, said they only gathered on the streets, shouting.

3 police injured
Three policemen were injured in the unrest, which continued on Friday and Saturday, according to Xinhua.

The agency reported, however, that order had since been restored and 23 of the protesters were detained. The Hong Kong rights organization put the number at 30.

Three hundred military police arrived in Kanmen Sunday, said the chief of the propaganda department of Yuhuan County, which oversees Kanmen. He gave his family name as Yan.

He said Zhang was drunk when he was trying to get his residence permit and "knocked his head on the wall by himself."

Yan said Zhang has been freed but gave no details.

China imposed the residency rules shortly after the 1949 communist revolution as part of tight controls on where people could live, work, and even whom they could marry.

The system required migrants to carry their residency papers and exposing them to police abuse and extortion. The rules were reformed after the 2003 beating death of a young college graduate who was detained for not having a residence permit.

Migrants no longer have to carry residency papers on them, police can no longer forcibly detain them and temporary residency fees have been slashed, although abuses are sometimes reported.

'A de facto apartheid system'
But Phelim Kine, an Asia researcher with New York-based Human Rights Watch, notes that traveling workers do not enjoy social benefits, such as unemployment services and access to medical care, that urban residents do because of a household regulation system.

"This is a de facto apartheid system," Kine said.

Migrant workers, who usually perform the lowest-paid and most dangerous jobs, also have little legal recourse in disputes with employers because of a widespread lack of labor contracts.

"This incident illustrates the types of abuses that migrant workers in China are prey to; that they lack legal status, and in this case, an attempt to gain this legal status results in physical violence," said Kine.

Human rights groups have also said while migrants are allowed to apply for temporary residency, they must pay extra for schooling and rarely receive insurance or access to subsidized housing.

Also Monday, Xinhua said police in Guizhou province had detained 100 people, including 39 members of local gangs, for their role in last month's protest over the death of the teenage student.

Peng Dequan, vice director of provincial public security, was quoted as saying they were still looking for other "gangsters" who were in hiding.

Authorities have accused local gangs of fomenting the unrest, and have urged offenders to surrender and encouraged local residents to give information on others suspected of organizing it, Xinhua said.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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