China: Slave-labour scandal in 21st century China

’Black’ brick kilns and factories product of capitalist ’market’ system

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Slave-labour scandal in 21st century China

News of slavery, torture, human trafficking and children imprisoned in conditions "worse than dog kennels" has exploded like a bomb in China. The issue has dominated public discussion and internet forums and dealt a serious blow to the credibility of the ruling ’communist’ party.

Since the first, limited, media reports were aired at the end of May, the slavery scandal in the provinces of Shanxi and Henan has developed into a major political crisis for the Chinese regime. By Friday, 22 June, 591 slave labourers, including 51 children, had been freed as a result of one of the biggest police operations ever. Media estimates say a thousand more children may still be enslaved.

Hundreds of millions have watched the shocking, heart-rending television footage of dazed, mistreated, half-starved slaves as they emerged from captivity. The youngest was an eight-year-old. Some were still wearing their school uniforms from the day they were kidnapped. The traffickers charged 500 yuan (roughly €52) for each slave.

Public outcry

But this mobilisation of police resources – a reported 45,000 police in the two provinces – only came about because of the public and media outcry that was started when parents of missing children organised themselves into a campaign group and then publicised their plight on the internet (see article on chinaworker web-site: Who can save our children?). One group of parents pooled their money to buy a car to tour the brickworks of Shanxi in search of their children. By their own efforts they managed to liberate around a hundred children. But they also learned that the police and local officials were unwilling to help and in many cases were in cohoots with the slave masters.

"We learned not to rely on the police but to tour the kilns one by one ourselves," confessed Chai Wei, a father from Henan. Rather than being a police matter, the parents were told, according to reports on Henan’s Metro Channel TV: "This is a conflict between labour and capital". In a confrontation broadcast on national television, local ’communist’ party officials told parents, "You should have taken better care of your children!". Another parent told how he located his son and other children he recognised working at a Shanxi brick factory, but police would only allow him to take his own son. "You just find your child but keep out of other people’s business," they told him. Two labour inspectors who took charge of a boy labourer released from a brickworks sold him to another works instead of returning him to his parents.

The struggle of the parents to locate and free their children has aroused enormous public sympathy. But in equal measure, the actions of government officials have aroused outrage. As one Henan television reporter explained to Reuters: "In our reporting, the biggest obstacle has been lack of cooperation by some authorities in Shanxi. Some are still coming up with any number of ways to obstruct parents rescuing their children."

What ’harmony’?

The existence of what amounts to an organised slave trade in China makes nonsense of president Hu Jintao’s professed aim of building a ’harmonious society’. Local officials are already compromised in the public eye; nobody is really shocked to learn that the slavers and traffickers were protected at local level. But this time the central government’s credibility is also on the line. Questions are rightly being asked on internet forums and in the press about why the central government in Beijing has taken so long to act. As the Oriental Daily News points out, reports of slavery in Shanxi appeared two weeks before the central government made any statement on the matter.

Initially, only low-ranking officials were put in charge of the investigation, a step that many say gave the kiln owners time to cover up their crimes. Many fear that remaining slaves will be harder to track down. Already some parents of missing children have received ransom demands, meaning that some former slave bosses have taken the logical next step into full-blown hostage takers. Others kept as slaves have undoubtedly suffered an even worse fate.

There can be no mistaking the serious effect of the crisis on the top leadership of Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao. The State Council (China’s cabinet) held an extraordinary meeting on the scandal on Wednesday 20 June. Wen announced a nationwide inspection of labour conditions and urged officials to "learn the lessons" of Shanxi. But what are the lessons of Shanxi?

This episode underlines that on the basis of the capitalist ’market’, such practices are impossible to eradicate. In Shanxi and other poor inland provinces there are tens of thousands of unregistered kilns, foundries and mines. How do they continually escape legal controls? The answer is of course political protection: kiln owners are warned in advance of periodic crackdowns, police and workplace inspectors are bribed, many villages are ruled by the profiteers or their relatives.

And what difference will new laws passed by the central government make? As a commentary carried last week by Xinhua pointed out, China already has laws prohibiting child labour and other abuses, but these laws are simply ignored. The only law that is never disobeyed in today’s China seems to be the law of profit! The planned two-month inspection tour of factories, mines and brickyards, ordered by the central government, will not solve the problem. Its effects will at best be short-lived, as profiteers temporarily close down, relocate, or threaten their workers into giving false statements when the inspectors arrive. Today there are even companies whose business is to advise other companies how to evade inspections.

Business and officialdom

The nexus between local politicians and criminal or semi-criminal private profiteers is symbolised by Wang Bingbing, owner of the infamous brick kiln in Shanxi’s Hongtong county at the epicentre of the scandal. He is now in police custody. Wang’s father was the village ’communist’ party boss, without whose protection the entire scheme would not have been possible. He has now been sacked and expelled from the party – a small price to pay for such crimes!

Shanxi’s local politicians are being condemned not only by the testimony of freed slaves and their families, but even by their abusers. The wife of one arrested kiln owner told Reuters: "The officials said that we were illegal and so they came for money but they didn’t do any more than that – they wanted the money!"

The scandal has given rise to an unprecedented outpouring in the state-run media. The China Youth Daily called the affair a "shocking disgrace." The Party’s main mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, called in an editorial for "thorough reflection". It warned: "Otherwise, we will have no way of living up to the word ’harmony’". Regional newspapers have if anything tested the limits of censorship even further.

"This issue is about much more than illegal work practices," commented the Guangzhou Daily. "We see more bloody crimes through it, like kidnapping, abducting, beating, abusing, or even murdering. Behind all of those crimes, there is the misconduct of local officials", they say, trying to talk their way out of a tight corner.

The measures announced by central government are about damage limitation – preventing the public outcry from getting out of hand. Orders have gone out to regional media to stop reporting on the issue. Some arrests have been made and the regime will sacrifice some local officials, but it hopes to keep this to a minimum. In characteristic style, Wen and other top leaders want to appear to be doing something, hoping the general public will be satisfied and the issue will fade from public consciousness. Instead of real action what is being offered is more empty promises.

The central government cannot pretend it knew nothing. In 2003, Wen Jiabao went on record demanding tough punishment in the case of a teenager lured into slavery in Yongji County, Shanxi – a region that also features in the current scandal. In the four years that have passed, the problem has simply gotten worse.

Rural power vacuum

The scandal highlights the central government’s loss of control over its local and regional organs. Much of China’s still poor countryside has been transformed into a political ’no man’s land’ under the rule of local patrons, gangsters and clan leaders in conditions that echo China’s feudal past. "The state’s control over the countryside and farmers has weakened," noted the Guangzhou Daily. "In some towns and villages a power vacuum has emerged and criminal forces have seized the opportunity to flourish and dominate". This was graphically confirmed by one of the freed slaves, 16-year-old Chen Chenggong, who told the Associated Press he often saw uniformed policemen visit the brickworks in Shanxi’s Hongtong county: "They were paid-off by the owner. The whole village was his".

Several reports confirm that the brick kilns and their grisly practices were well known among the local population. But, given the level of official protection and the power of the slave-masters, few dared to protest. Villagers described local conditions in Hongtong as, "A mixture of poverty, opportunity and widespread indifference." Some villagers also told Reuters that, "the same officials now presenting themselves as heroes for rescuing workers" had previously colluded with the brickyard owners.

Heads may roll

Can Beijing’s usual crisis management tactics – more empty promises plus a few symbolic arrests and sackings – succeed in averting a serious, national political crisis? This remains to be seen. At the time of writing the scandal shows no signs of abating. On Friday 22 June, Shanxi governor, Yu Youjun, issued a public apology: "I feel … heart-stricken over the scandal. On behalf of the provincial government, I apologise to the victims and their families, as well as to all the people in Shanxi."

This ritualistic self-criticism however may not save Yu and other provincial bosses from a growing clamour for resignations and even punishment. By any criteria, Shanxi province is an administrative disaster. Not only has it become a hub of the new slave trade. It is home to three of China’s ten most polluted cities and has consequently seen an alarming increase in pollution-related cancers. It is also near the top of the coal industry’s fatal accident listings.

There is widespread anger over the attempt by Yu and his government to impose a press embargo on the slave issue in Shanxi. Had this succeeded, not a single slave would had been released. Fortunately, media outlets from other provinces helped circumvent the ruling. This fact underlines the complete hypocrisy of Yu’s belated ’apology’.

Yu is an archetype of the capitalist ’modernisers’ in the Chinese Communist Party’s ruling circles. He was moved to the governorship of Shanxi after serving five years as the mayor of China’s richest city, Shenzhen. At the time of his appointment he told the magazine China International Business: "I will copy the measures and thoughts proved effective in Guangdong, Shenzhen and Hunan, change the work styles of local government officials and push Shanxi towards a more open market environment". (China International Business, September 1, 2006]

That slavery and human trafficking should explode into public view on Yu’s watch is a major embarrassment not just to him but also to Wen and Hu who stood behind his appointment. It would be potentially even more embarrassing if Shanxi’s party secretary, Zhang Baoshun, is dragged down by the scandal. This post is always the senior of two top provincial positions. Zhang is close to Hu, in that he comes from the Communist Youth League – the president’s main base of support within the party apparatus. He worked with Hu in the 1980s. He is – or was – one of four front runners as candidates to be elevated to the ruling Politburo in the coming reshuffle at the 17th Party Congress in October.

Should Yu and Zhang, as two ’rising stars’ of the party hierarchy, be disgraced as a result of the slave scandal, it will be hard to prevent the political fall-out reaching Beijing and the central duo of Hu and Wen. Whatever the outcome, it is hard to see the central leadership emerging unscathed from this affair, in terms of lost prestige and damage to their carefully cultivated image of ’honest’ and ’compassionate’ officials in the confucian mould – in stark contrast to the majority of local officials.


"In many countries, a scandal like this would be enough to spark a major political crisis and crisis of confidence. But here in China to date there is not even a hint of resignations," exclaimed the Southern Metropolis Daily, another state-run tabloid. But such a scenario is not excluded even in China. Political scandals have triggered mass movements in a number of Asian countries in recent years. The example of the Philippines, where president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo rigged her 2004 election victory but then faced mass protests comes to mind. Hundreds of thousands also took to the streets of Thailand in 2006 after Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra concluded a suspicious telecom deal – a movement which six months later triggered a military coup.

Even in an authoritarian state like China, a popular movement could develop out of a political scandal like this one, bursting the barriers of traditional state control. The 400 parents whose internet appeal exposed the scandal have emerged as a potential focus for the massive public indignation that exists. If the parents and the freed slave-workers issued a call for a national day of solidarity actions and marches, to keep up the pressure on the government, it would not be easy for the regime to block this.

Switching to open repression and pulling police resources off the search for slaves into hunting down anti-slave protesters is hardly the kind of ’compassionate’ image the government wants to portray at this time. If the idea was launched now – on internet and other forums – for a mass "anti-slavery" demonstration in Zhengzhou, for example, the main transport hub where youngsters have been abducted or lured into false ’jobs’, it could draw support from all over China. This would put enormous pressure on the government, making it much harder to merely repeat previous cosmetic ’clean-up campaigns’.

What is to be done?

After last week’s State Council meeting, Wen announced, "Lawbreakers that illegally employ children, force people to work or maliciously injure workers will be severely punished". This statement contains absolutely nothing new. Shanxi’s slave-owners knew they were acting illegally, but discovered a lucrative way around the law. What is lacking in all the official statements is any indication of how and by what means a repetition of this scandal can be avoided. News reports make clear the problem is not limited to Shanxi and Henan. The party’s Democracy and Law magazine reported on teenage female slaves being used for prostitution in a brick kiln in Hebei province. China Daily has reported cases of slavery as far south as Guangdong, China’s wealthiest province.

In parts of South and Southeast Asia, similar forms of exploitation exist to those uncovered in China. Furthermore, while the practices in Shanxi’s black kilns were shocking, the conditions facing tens of millions of workers in manufacturing industry are only marginally better. The sweatshops of the Pearl River Delta and other coastal export hubs also resemble labour camps with their military discipline, fines, non-payment of wages, excruciating working hours and hazardous working conditions. Shanxi’s slavers merely took this exploitation to the ’next level’.

Police measures will at best have a temporary effect. Factories and mines that are closed today can be reopened later. This happens routinely in the privately-owned coal industry, which has developed an elaborate system for evading official controls. The lesson is simple: Where there is a market, and profits to be made, there will be profiteers ready to swoop in. Likewise, where there is generalised poverty there will unfortunately be no shortage of victims. More than half the population of China is systematically discriminated against and disadvantaged. The ’hukuo’ system classifies citizens as either ’urban’ or ’rural’ and denies the latter the right of permanent residence in cities and also most forms of legal protection.

Perhaps the most shocking story to emerge from all this media exposure is of the freed slave labourers who did not want to leave their one-time prisons, arguing that at least there they got some food and shelter.

Millions of impoverished teenagers and young people are forced to leave their rural homes every year, never knowing exactly where they will end up or what type of work they will find. Without an emergency programme by the state to expand education, abolish crippling school and university fees, create decent jobs for young people and develop essential infrastructure in rural areas, it is impossible to root out the conditions that have given rise to slavery and human trafficking.

Likewise, the absence of independent trade unions and workers’ organisations means workers and working class communities are powerless to resist flagrant law-breaking by bosses and local politicians. The attempts by the phoney government-run unions to cash in on this affair, consist at best of empty phrases, at worst amount to conscious deception. How can a so-called trade union that allows bosses and management appointees to sit on its leading bodies, play any independent role on behalf of workers or sound the alarm over abuses? More than ever before, the need for genuine, democratically controlled trade unions is the central issue in China today.

State control – why not?

The striking thing about the government’s deliberations of the last two weeks is that no section of the ruling ’communist’ party – whose name in Chinese means ’the party of public property’ – has raised the idea of re-imposing state control over ’slave’ industries such as coal mining, metal-working and building materials. Shanxi’s provincial government has announced it will stop purchasing cheap bricks of the type made by slaves. But this will not stop this form of primitive, unregulated production. It will merely force the bosses to find new markets or change their methods. Despite its "tough" talk, the ’communist’ government in Shanxi reduces itself to the methods of a consumer pressure group.

The obvious solution would include re-establishing a state monopoly on the building materials industry. Bringing the entire construction industry and its suppliers into state ownership, would make it impossible for the ’black’ kilns to survive. The fact that neither central nor provincial governments mentions the ’n’ word’ (nationalisation) is a telling comment on political realities in China today. As the coal industry has shown, the regime has encouraged faster privatisation while noisily lamenting mining deaths.

China’s ’communist’ party is as determined as any capitalist government, if not more determined, to resist measures that could indicate a reversal of its neo-liberal ’reform and opening’ programme. They fear that measures renewing state control, even implemented bureaucratically and undemocratically as previously under Maoism, would strengthen the position of workers, and could trigger demands for more and bolder measures against the profiteers.

The slave scandal could well be a defining moment for the Hu-Wen leadership, dealing a huge blow to illusions among a considerable layer that this is a government capable of delivering improvements for the poor. Real change will not come from the ’communist’ party or any constellation of its leaders or factions. Real change requires the building of a mass democratic socialist alternative. A first step would be the establishment of genuine trade unions prepared to stand up to the bosses and their police.

China Worker says

  • Abolish slavery and human trafficking! For a mass movement to drive out the slave traders and seize their ill-gotten assets!
  • Keep up the pressure – don’t let the government off the hook. Parents and freed slave-workers should call a national day of solidarity marches and protests against slave labour!
  • For independent and fully democratic trade unions to enforce decent wages, an eight-hour working day and safe, humane working conditions!
  • Nationalise the construction, metal and coal industries under democratic workers’ control and management. For a democratically-controlled central plan of the entire resources and land sector.
  • Confiscate the property of employers and companies that violate labour and environmental laws. Use these resources to create real jobs with decent pay and conditions under democratic trade union control.
  • Slave labour and class exploitation are a part of capitalism – join the fight for a democratic socialist alternative!

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July 2007