A leap backwards

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 July, 2007, 12:00am

On June 20, Premier Wen Jiabao chaired a State Council meeting to announce a nationwide crackdown on enslavement. This followed revelations earlier last month of widespread slave labour and child trading rackets in Shanxi and Henan provinces, and enslaved labour working at brick kilns also in Shanxi.

Only days before authorities freed 591 slaves, of whom 51 were under age. The truth is, if it were not for widespread media exposure officials would have been unlikely to have done anything and these people would still be toiling as slaves.

These cases fly in the face of everything which was the moral mandate of the Communist Party. Since 1949 a plethora of propaganda has glorified the party as 'liberating' the nation. Its political legend was built around saving rural and urban workers from exploitation.

Yes, in the bad old days there were feudal warlords and serfs, but not slaves - something which dates back to darker eras of China's history such as the 'Warring States' period. For a nation holding itself up as 'modern', revelations of pre-medieval slave trade operations openly occurring under the noses of authorities amount to one great leap backwards.

These cases also further reveal how widespread moral depravity has become in China's own society. The racket's ringleader, slave-driving foreman Heng Tinghan, was nonchalant about his crimes: 'I feel this was not such a big issue, just a matter of beating and cursing at workers and not paying wages to them.'

Mainstream psychology within China today does not envision harming or exploiting another as a bad thing if it is in the name of making money for oneself.

Thirteen job agencies were shut at Xian's railway station for 'deceiving rural workers and sending them to work as slaves in illegal brick kilns', Xinhua reported. But how could 13 agencies, duping innocents and slave trading, operate openly in such a public venue as Xian's railway station without authorities being aware?

The logical assumption is probably right. Authorities were aware, but unwilling to do anything.

Abuses by racketeers in cahoots with local government have become so common in China they are a fact which everyone lives with.

Even in Beijing parents hover in crowds outside schools waiting to collect their children in fear of kidnapping for forced labour or prostitution. It is implausible the authorities in Beijing are unaware of this situation and its continued deteriorating effect on the nation's moral and political backbone.

Sex workers beckon passers-by on the streets which surround the party's headquarters in Zhongnanhai and the Forbidden City. Most of these sex shops are chain rackets. Such prostitution rackets in 'old society' were once considered a stain on China's history that the party cleaned up 50 years ago.

In response to the brick kiln exposure Mr Wen demanded the Shanxi government 'pay highest attention' to the problem. Are these strong enough words? What about action to enforce them? Mr Wen insisted Shanxi Governor Yu Youjun undertake a 'self criticism on behalf of the Shanxi government'. Of course, self criticism is a step in the right direction. But will it stop continued local government abuses?

China's reforms released power from the centre to localities resulting in today's central government having authority, but lacking sufficient muscle to implement decisions at local levels to protect its own people. Mafiaism arises. Emperors once stood over Tiananmen Gate reading edicts and the people 'feared and trembled'. By the late Qing dynasty they still read edicts but local officials were too opiated to hear.

Mao Zedong once stood on the same place that the emperors did and declared: 'Chinese people have finally stood up!' But have they?

Laurence Brahm is a political economist, author, filmmaker and founder of Shambhala Foundation