Slavery in China: “Who Can Save Our Children?”

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The furore over the “slaves” forced to work in brick kilns, small iron foundries and coal mines keeps growing and looks set to keep doing so for some time to come…unless the central government decides to shut it down. The police now say they’ve rescued a total of 468 people in China’s north east from forced labor in the last month, a good number of them children. According to Xinhua, China’s national news agency, the last four days have seen a massive police rescue operation involving 35,000 officers checking 7,500 work places, an operation without doubt instigated on the orders of Beijing itself. The wonder is that it has taken this long for the story to come out, or rather that it is news at all. Anyone who has been to Shanxi Province–where many of the kilns are located–and visited the small privately owned mines there must already have suspected something like this might be going on. Also that child labor –anyone under 16 I guess– is also fairly commonplace.

In fact, it’s very instructive to follow the sequence of events that lead to the maelstrom of controversy roiling the media and internet in China. The web as usual seems to have been the origin. Some 400 parents of children who they suspected had been kidnapped published an open letter on the popular internet forum Tianya Club on June 7th. They said they had rescued some 40 kids before running into a brick wall from the police and local authorities.
(I have copied the text of the letter below as it was translated in part by the excellent China news aggregator, which those of us in China have problems accessing. In fact, it is so comprehensively blocked by the Great Firewall (aka “GFW,” even in Chinese) that I can’t even get at it through a proxy.)

The internet worked its magic and by June 13th, a member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party (in other words, one of the people who really runs China) expressed concern. That, of course, was what really started things moving. It will be instructive to see how this develops over the next few days. As ever, the Party is in a bind, wishing to right and obvious wrong but fearful of what dark secrets about its own members might emerge along the way and what precedent might be set for future scandals. At some point soon, I think, an order will come down banning further discussion of the issue, particularly as one of the most notorious kilns was run by the son of the local Party boss and local Party officials are no doubt up to their necks in many of the cases, they being the ones who can protect the bosses from the police. But it will be very hard to put a lid on this. The details are so harrowing, the crimes so clear and the guilty parties so obvious that even the infamous GFW may not be up to the job.

Here is the letter, which ends with a plea: Who can save our children? Some of the details –children kidnapped and sold for 500 yuan or about $60, the complicity of local officials and police –are harrowing and even in stilted translation convey an echo of the anguish these families must be going through.

(Thanks to China Digital Times)

We are the fathers of the children who were abducted to toil at illegal brick kilns in Shanxi Province. Our children, who are very young and unsophisticated, were hoodwinked or forcibly dragged into cars by human traffickers at Zhengzhou Railway Station, bus stations, underneath pedestrian overpasses, or on the roads. They were sold for 500 yuan apiece to the owners of illegal brick kilns in Shanxi to work as slave laborers.

Since our children disappeared, we gave up everything, deserted our hometown and traversed almost the whole country to look for them. After great hardship and difficulties, we finally confirmed that they were sold to illegal brick kiln owners in Shanxi.

We were astonished when we finally caught a glimpse of our children, who were using both their hands and feet to work and whose hair was as long and disheveled as that of savages. Some of them have been isolated for seven years, some of them were severely beaten and are now disabled after they were caught escaping, and some had their backs ironed by the foremen using heated bricks (their backs couldn’t recover even several months after they were rescued and sent to hospitals).

We were too weak. And our children’s lives are constantly in danger. We had to ask recourse from the government. We traveled to the public security departments and the labor departments in the village, the county, and the district. What disheartened and disappointed us was that the public security department in the village not only disregarded our request, but even obstructed us by all means to take away our children. They stood by indifferently when the kilns owners threatened us. The county public security department, after getting orders from the superior to interfere, told us that since the children were kidnapped in Henan and the kilns owners were from Henan, we should come back and report to the Henan police. “We will full-heartedly cooperate if the Henan police take the case.” Leaving without a choice, we had to take another hard journey back to Henan.

However, the Henan police expressed nothing but incapability to help. They explained that since our children were only coercively detained and illegally forced to work, and since there were no children dead, the case was not strong enough to be registered. Besides, according to the law, the case took place in Shanxi, it should be taken care of by Shanxi police.

The lives of our children should be taken care of immediately. Who can rescue them? With the governments in Henan and Shanxi passing the buck to each other, whom should we ask for help? This is extremely urgent, and concerns the life and death of our children. Who can help us?