Cries of the kiln slaves reverberate in Beijing

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 June, 2007, 12:00am

If anything defines the ugliness and evil of the mainland's headlong pursuit of economic growth at any cost it is the scandal over slavery at brick kilns in Shanxi and Henan provinces.

As hundreds of slaves, including scores of children, were freed over the past two weeks, the widening scandal served as the perfect example of the country's ills - rampant official corruption, serious dereliction of duty, and widespread collusion between greedy officials and unscrupulous businessmen.

It is also a sign of the moral decay deteriorating to another low in a society where people will go to any lengths to make money. The news has horrified and angered tens of millions of mainlanders who believed nothing could have shocked them further following a spate of scandals in recent years, including the baby-killing milk formula in 2004 and the the fake drugs which killed dozens of people earlier this year.

Mainland officials and state media readily have admitted that rampant official corruption and dereliction of duty by government officials were responsible for the slavery at the kilns.

As is the custom in dealing with disasters and scandals, they are keen to emphasise that the blame should be upon 'a small group' of labour officials and policemen at the village or township level, after they announced that dozens of lowly officials had been detained or received administrative punishments.

But the kiln slavery scandal has far wider and more profound implications. It signals that the Beijing leadership is fast losing control of the vast and poor countryside, where massive migration of labour and official corruption have made it impossible for higher-level officials to get a grip on what is going on.

Shanxi governor Yu Youjun admitted at a news conference on Friday that government departments had no control over and did not monitor the small workshops, mines, and factories operating in the countryside while the police departments had loopholes in managing migrant labourers.

He said the rural (party) organisations were weak and lax and did not perform their duties to protect the interests of the people.

Shanxi is not unique in this. The party's grip is loosening everywhere, with family clans taking control of village affairs and, in some cases, the village party secretaries or other village officials abusing their power for personal gain.

As the government's monitoring and control mechanism is non-existent in many of the rural areas, it is little wonder that the slave kilns went unchecked for at least a decade.

It is time for the leadership to reform its rigid and cumbersome administrative system from the central government to province, to city, to county, to township, to village.

Suggestions already have been made that the central government should allow provincial authorities to take direct control over the administration of the counties.

Another long-term implication is that the kiln slavery scandal is likely to serve as a further agent to foment a crisis of confidence in the government at all levels. Ever since President Hu Jintao came to power in late 2002, he has trumpeted his policy of 'putting the people first' and 'building a harmonious socialist society'.

But the irony is that since then there has been a series of high-profile scandals and heightened doubts over the credibility of his administration and his policies.

If the slave kiln scandal occurred in any other country, this could have triggered a crisis of confidence in the government and resignations of a number of senior officials. So far, Mr Yu, the Shanxi governor, is the only senior official who has offered a public apology. Obviously, that is far from enough.