Human rights in China

‘Not a single day of rest’: victims reveal details of modern slavery case in China

  • Fifty-two men were rescued in April after one escaped and went to police
  • They were guarded around the clock, kept in rooms with more than a dozen others, and beaten if they worked too slowly, complained or tried to escape
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 January, 2019, 11:06pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 January, 2019, 10:31pm

After being locked up and forced to work in harsh conditions in northeast China for up to six years, 52 men were freed in April last year when one of them finally escaped and reported the case to police.

The 13 men who ran the four syndicates that lured them into slavery were sentenced to jail terms of one to six years by a Harbin court in December.

Shocking details have now emerged in the slavery case, with two of the victims telling their stories to Chinese news site

The men are from provinces across China but they all had one thing in common – they were struggling to find work because of physical disabilities, mental illness, a lack of education or homelessness.

The syndicates preyed on them as they looked for jobs in train stations or at labour markets, where rural migrant workers usually go to find employment in the city, the news outlet reported on Saturday.

They were taken to the northeast of the country, where they were locked up when they were not working and guarded by syndicate members around the clock. Their ID cards, mobile phones and money were taken away and the victims said if they tried to escape, they would be beaten with shovels and other tools.

“We had to work every day and there was not a single day of rest, even during Chinese New Year,” Sun Haida, one of the victims, told

Syndicate members would take them to work at places such as construction sites, fertiliser plants, grain warehouses, logging operations and dairy farms in Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang province, according to the report.

Wherever they were working, the syndicates rented accommodation nearby. More than a dozen men would have to share a small room, and they were locked in.

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The victims told the news site the work day ran from early in the morning until late at night – sometimes until 2am.

Sun said at one stage they were forced to work for two days and nights without sleep at a fertiliser plant in Harbin, while at a state-run warehouse in the province, they spent three days and nights hauling bags of grain. He said anyone who slowed down or complained they were tired was punched or beaten with iron hooks and wooden sticks.

According to the court documents, supervisors – some of whom had been slaves themselves – beat at least two of the workers so badly they caused internal bleeding.

The news website also quoted Sun and another victim as saying they had witnessed the deaths of at least two men, but those deaths were not mentioned during the court trial.

According to Sun, many of the men were unable to shower for several years and did not have access to basic necessities like a toothbrush and toothpaste.

They ate basic meals of rice and vegetables, and twice a month they were given roast duck.

The slave who took on Hong Kong

Sun is from Qiqihar in Heilongjiang, and was one of the few victims who had been in good mental and physical health. Now 28, Sun was lured by syndicate members by the promise of work when he was at a railway station in Harbin.

He told the news site he had tried to escape during the five years he was kept as a slave – but his attempt to run away after being beaten failed when he was caught by the syndicate master, Liu Zhenhua. Sun said it had taken him a while to remember his name when he was eventually freed by police because for five years he had only been referred to by his captors as No 25.

Another victim, 36-year-old Zhou Gang from Liaoning province, also attempted to escape. He told the news site he decided to run when he had been set to work digging up wild medicinal herbs in the mountains. Zhou said he managed to run for 65km (40 miles) but eventually Liu caught him, and he was severely beaten with a shovel after he was taken back. Liu was jailed for four years.

Zhou, who has a seven-year-old daughter, was kept as a slave for four years and also sent to different locations to work. He also said he had been denied a shower in that time.

Since Zhou was rescued, he has struggled with health problems that began when he was locked up.

“He has seizures that last for three to four hours every time,” his father told

Zhou and Sun were both carrying heavy bags of fertiliser at a private factory just 70km away from Harbin when they were found by police last year, after the escapee reported the case in March.

The factory owner said he had outsourced the work six months earlier and was not aware that the subcontractor was using forced labour.

Zhou and Sun’s families said they were now exploring legal options to seek compensation for their years of unpaid work.