How could trade have thrived?

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 June, 2007, 12:00am

His skin was covered with scales and he hadn't been able to wash for months. He was forced to work 16 hours a day and was beaten by ruthless supervisors. He tried to escape, but the cramped, stinking shelter where he slept was locked and guarded by fierce dogs.

This is not an excerpt from a novel or a history book about African slavery, but an eyewitness report of a thriving slave trade in the central provinces of modern China.

The appalling conditions came to the public's attention only after a group of desperate parents from Henan province posted online reports of what they had seen in five trips to the brick kilns of remote Shanxi in search of their missing children.

A report in the Legal Evening News said the trade had existed for more than a decade but the networks were becoming more sophisticated.

The question is: how can this be possible in present-day China? Fu Zhenzhong , a Henan TV reporter who accompanied the parents as they scoured more than 100 Shanxi kilns for their children, said in a report that brick-making was flourishing in Shanxi because of cheap supplies of coal and loess soil.

A booming property market has pushed up brick prices, and the sparsely populated areas in Shanxi were hard-pressed to provide enough workers for the industry.

According to the report, economic incentives and corruption gave rise to the slave trade. Children and mentally ill people were particularly vulnerable because they were less able to escape and resist.

The reports shocked Lin Yanling , of the Chinese Institute of Industrial Relations.

She said the illicit operations were far more serious because they involved the systematic, forced slavery of children. 'They are treating people like animals. It is just like a concentration camp.'

Liu Daoxing, vice-president of the Henan Academy of Social Sciences, was quoted by Henan TV as saying police had collaborated with the kiln owners because brick-making was key to the economy. There is also evidence labour officials were involved.

Two teenagers 'rescued' by police from a Shanxi kiln were sold to another kiln by an official in charge of labour relations.

According to a Henan TV report, the official even pocketed 300 yuan in compensation given to one of the teenagers, Zhu Guanghui , after the youth's release.

Zhang Shanlin , whose son Zhang Yinlei was severely burned when he was forced to move hot bricks without protection, said workers told him the kiln was owned by Caosheng village party boss Wang Dongji and his son Wang Bingbing . But state media reported only Wang Bingbing's arrest.

The most astonishing fact is that despite the widespread crackdown ordered by Beijing, the missing children have been moved out and are nowhere to be found.