Comments on Slavery from a Former Prisoner

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A story in yesterday’s South China Morning Post says that the foreman of one of the notorious Shanxi brick kilns where children and mentally handicapped workers were kept as slaves under appalling conditions has been sentenced to death. He beat one of the workers to death with a shovel. Twenty eight others received terms ranging from life in prison to a few years. The next sentences say it all:

They are among 41 owners and managers of illegal kilns in Linfen and Yuncheng who have been tried for forced labour, illegal detention, hiring child labour and murder. No senior officials in Shanxi have been punished or charged.

Once again, the big fish get away. This sort of thing isn’t unique to China, of course. Indeed it is depressingly common. Look at the absolutely disgraceful prosecution of a few low level dim bulbs in the Abu Ghraib affair. While there is no smoking gun leading right to the top, detailed reporting (notably by Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker) makes it clear that real responsibility reaches very far up the chain of command indeed. But at least in the Abu Ghraib case such abuses were subsequently halted. Of course they probably continue in a few isolated interrogations, but as an institutionalized matter of policy, they have been swept away. Hell, it even looks as though Guantanomo might actually be closed too. However, in the Shanxi brick kiln case that can’t be said. A chilling story in the same SCMP quotes one of the mothers who toured the province looking for her child as saying there are many more slave kilns still in operation, places she saw with her own eyes that are worse than the kiln at Hongtong that was closed:

“We have visited many brick kilns and the one in Hongtong was not the worst … The worst ones were in Yongji and Linyi . They had many foremen and we saw many children there.”

“There were so many foremen there that you could hardly even get close to the kiln because they were holding sticks in their hands,” she said. “When we finally got in there after reporting it to the police, children tugged at our trousers and begged us to bring them out, but the local police refused to help.” She had also heard of killings of slaves at other kilns.”

Children tugging at her coat begging to be freed. Police indifference. Truly horrible. But apparently not awful enough to get a full sweep ordered by the provincial party officials. Or indeed anyone in Beijing.

This got me thinking of a visit I made recently to see Bao Tong. He was once a senior party cadre and political secretary to the CPC Secretary Genral, Zhao Ziyang until the latter fell from power after Tiananmen. Bao has spent much of his time since then in prison or under house arrest in his modest west Beijing apartment, though he is now allowed out (followed by a bunch of hefty fellows in a car and one on a motorcycle in case the 70-something grandfather tries to sprint for it). He can also talk to the foreign press and does so with great verve. Bao made an interesting observation about the brick kiln affair. He said it was a great opportunity for the party to demonstrate to an increasingly sophisticated middle class audience that it is allowing more public space for debate and that it can respond aggressively to people’s concerns. These abuses are more common than is portrayed, Bao said:”It’s not just children but adults as well, not just in Shanxi but in other provinces to and not just in brick kilns but in other industries.” In other words it is a large scale national problem calling out for a comprehensive solution from the central government in Beijing. But Bao says there won;’t be anything more than a few low level prosecutions like those announced recently. “They can’t bring themselves to lift the cover off the box for fear of what they might discover inside.”

And because of that great missed opportunity (one of many, he says) to show they party is becoming more progressive, Bao says he isn’t optimistic about change anytime soon. Indeed, it may be that the party is so deeply addicted to power and resistant to change that it is incapable of change. Still, he says, “over the longer period I am optimistic. In the end, the history is made by the people. Over the longer period, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, these sort of men only survive for a short time.” Maybe so, but it’ll still be too late for all those still trapped in slavery.