Slavery in China Combing the Brickyards for the Disappeared

It's a story that has made headlines around the world: Slave laborers have been found in Chinese brick factories. The authorities have freed many of them, but some fear there could be hundreds more being imprisoned, beaten and starved. Some parents have begun searching for their sons on their own.

The 22-year-old farmer’s son Ma Yongqiang from the village Yubao in the fertile fields near China’s Yellow River wanted finally to get married, but his chances were limited. Before tying the knot, a groom has to have a house or at least a decent job to show his prospective father-in-law. But Ma didn’t have either. Making things worse, he didn’t make a particularly handsome catch with his diminutive stature, droopy right eyelid and his mere six years of education.

A group of freed slave workers outside a police station in the northern Chinese town of Linfen after being freed from a brick factory where they had been imprisoned.

A group of freed slave workers outside a police station in the northern Chinese town of Linfen after being freed from a brick factory where they had been imprisoned.

Foto: AFP

And so he left his job at his uncle’s construction company where he was being trained to become a welder. His salary of 500 yuan a month, roughly €50, wasn't nearly enough to find a bride.

That was just before Chinese New Year. On February 28, Ma boarded a bus and traveled 60 kilometers to the old imperial city of Xi’an. Once there he asked for directions to a job agency near the train station, where he promptly got an offer. “I was supposed to become a watchman," Ma says. "They promised me 1,500 yuan a month.”

The next morning he piled into a small car known in China as a “breadbox” with three other men. During the trip Ma asked if he could call home once more, but was told: “Not any more.” That’s when Ma realized his job search had taken a turn for the worse.

Three Tortuous Months

His trip ended some 60 kilometers outside of Xi’an on the other side of the Yellow River in a village called Houfeng in Shanxi province. Ma and his three companions were then imprisoned in a narrow space already occupied by others. Three tortuous months followed.

From 5:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. each day, Ma was forced to push a cart filled with bricks. The first meal was at 2:30 p.m. and the second only after the workday was done. “We got cabbage and steamed buns,” says Ma. He was never paid for his labor. The foremen holding them captive beat anyone who was too slow, complained, or even simply talked to other laborers. One morning at 3 a.m. he managed to escape. He fled through a pepper plantation in a remote valley.

But it was all in vain. Ma got disoriented and found himself right back at the brick factory. The barking of a guard dog gave him away. The foremen beat him while screaming: “We’ll have to keep you chained up.” Ma begged on his knees for forgiveness, promising he’d never try to escape again.

Mercifully, it was all over a few weeks later. In early June, the police raided the factory and freed the laborers. They slapped 100 yuan in Ma's hand and told him to take the bus home. He did what the men in the blue uniforms told him.

Shady Job Agencies

Ma is only one of several slave laborers that China’s authorities have discovered working in brick factories in Shanxi and Henan provinces in recent weeks. Pictures of the raids showing confused and abused men and youths shocked the world. The photos showed a different China from the one normally seen in the West -- those portraying the unstoppable rise of an economic superpower. This China on display was an undeveloped country from a pre-industrial age. The proud hosts of the 2008 Olympic Games are now confronted with the ugly accusation that they’ve tolerated hordes of forced laborers for far too long -- modern slaves sold off as chattel by shady job agencies.

Chinese intellectuals like Hu Shuli, the editor in chief of the business magazine Caijing, are questioning whether the country -- with its poorly paid labor market, exploitation of migrant workers, and even outright slavery -- is denying many of its citizens “the right to freedom and dignity.” Has China after almost 58 years of communist rule completely lost its soul? “These incidents are truly ignominious for a civilized society,” says Jia Fenyong, a columnist for the state-run news agency Xinhua.

Those looking into the causes of the scandal have uncovered the unsavory shadow world existing alongside China’s remarkable economic rise in recent years. It is a realm of provincial cities hoping to join the country’s march of modernization and countless villages that have a few simple brick buildings, horrible roads, and inhabitants that can barely read and write.

It’s here that traditional family clans and mafia-like organizations have the say. Police have little power relative to local business magnates. No one is surprised when an official from a regional supervisory agency sells a recently freed young man from one brick factory to the next -- and charges him 300 yuan for the service.

Prison Time, Executions -- and Cover Up?

But ever since the first slave laborers stumbled out of their imprisonment in Shanxi, the regime in Beijing has attempted to limit the damage to China’s reputation. The Olympics are not far off; the official countdown started last week with a huge fireworks show and the government is eager to show its best face to the world. It’s bad enough that international organizations are currently using the upcoming sporting spectacle to vociferously demand that the government improve its record on human rights and press freedom. China’s premier Wen Jiabao has promised that human traffickers will face severe punishment in the future.

Even more indicative of China's dedication to ending the practice of forced labor, members of the political elite are demanding a thorough investigation and state-controlled television is broadcasting images of the unfortunate victims. Yu Youjun, the governor of Shanxi, admitted there had been incidents of “dereliction of duty by officials and corruption of individuals” and said he personally had “pangs of remorse” and was “inconsolable.”

Concrete steps have been taken. The communist leadership first shut down the dubious job agencies near train and bus stations in both provinces and it also, at least temporarily, closed down the brick factories -- including the one in Houfeng. The large kiln for making bricks is now cold, a small official notice attached to it reads: “Closed by the Yuncheng Administration for Industry and Trade, Department Development Zone Fenglingdu, June 16.”

'Become Rich and Find Happiness'

Wang Tong, a laborer from Henan province, keeps watch over the factory from a nearby barracks. He’s worked there loading bricks onto trucks since the beginning of the year. Forced labor? Beatings? “I don’t know anything about that and I haven’t talked with other workers,” he says. “The foremen brought the people here.”

Brick factory owner Yao Zhengye lives around the corner in a gray farmer’s house. The walls are adorned with the phrases common throughout the countryside: “Become rich and find happiness.” But the boss is not at home, having fled far away.

At least village leader Yao Fusheng, 54, is around. The 2,000 inhabitants recently re-elected him after he improved the roads and had new streetlights installed. Aside from his municipal duties he runs his own small construction firm specializing in concrete walls.

“I knew nothing about it,” says the mayor with sorghum moonshine on his breath. “When the police came, I was in Shandong province.” He honestly never visited the most important factory in his village? “No, I never went there.”

The main thoroughfare in Ruicheng district is called “Create Harmony Road,” which is dotted with brick factories. Most of them have been deserted, but one remains a scene of activity -- if not of actual production. Workers play cards with a bottle of liquor on the table. “I only employ local labor,” says the owner, a squarely built man with closely cropped hair.

His license hangs near the door. “We’re legal," he says, "but we’re still not allowed to work. But, if we don’t fulfill our contracts we’ll have to pay fines.” He’s heard of the use of slave labor in the area: “It was greed. Pure greed.”

Fast, Hard and Unfair

Some 150 kilometers to the north in Linfen, the country’s justice system is working double time. The first defendants had to face trial in early July as the authorities try to demonstrate how hard they are cracking down.

A brick factory owner, his foreman and three other men have been charged for imprisoning 31 people for months in the district of Hongdong. The boss is the son of the local Communist Party leader. One of his men supposedly killed a 60-year-old man in November 2006 because he wasn’t working enough. “I hit him with a shovel on the head. Then he fell over,” says the accused. He’s charged with deprivation of freedom and intentional assault. It’s a trial typical for China: fast, hard, and unfair. Only one of the defendants has an attorney.

There are no witnesses. The radio of a policeman crackles with the orders not to let the press into the courtroom. Around six in the evening the trial is over, but the judges do not hand down a sentence. As is common in politically sensitive cases, the verdict will first need to be cleared with the Communist Party.

It comes two weeks later: The factory owner gets nine years in prison, the foreman life. The killer with the shovel is sentenced to death. By early August the courts sentenced 27 factory bosses and foremen to prison for terms up to three years. Only four officials, including one policeman, get put behind bars. Ninety-five party members receive warnings or slaps on the wrist.

It’s unclear how many men and youths the police ended up freeing from captivity. The last official information from mid-June listed 600. But where are the others?

'No Sign of Our Children'

After regional television in Henan broadcasted its first report about slave labor, more than a thousand parents announced that their children were missing. Others called lawyers and police stations. Some haven’t heard from their relatives in almost 10 years.

Probably not all ended up as forced laborers in brick factories or coal mines, but a majority of them likely did. Are they being hidden until the latest crackdown blows over? Have the factory owners possibly killed then in order to get rid of incriminating witnesses?

That’s the greatest fear haunting around 400 fathers who have appealed to the government in an open letter posted on the Internet: “The liberation operations are ending, but how come there is no sign of our children?” The fathers avoid blaming the party directly, but their desperation is clear. “There are still thousands of people’s lives in danger.”

In Search of a Lost Son

Fu Zhenzhong, a journalist from the local broadcaster Henan TV Metro, uncovered the story in early May while traveling with a few parents looking for their missing children in the neighboring province Shanxi. It was like looking for a needle in a haystack. The brownish-yellow soil there is ideal for making bricks and the craggy landscape hides thousands of kilns both big and small.

But Fu and the parents still managed to find children, youths and men held captive. Some were so broken by then that they couldn’t speak. Fu wanted to take one boy with him, but the remorseless brick factory boss remained stubborn: “I bought him for 400 yuan,” he said.

The troubling pictures of abused slave laborers are slowly fading in the minds of the Chinese public. Word has come down from the party’s propaganda department to “wind down” the uproar. The journalist Fu is not allowed to speak to Western correspondents, and families questioned by the foreign media are visited by the police, who strongly urge them to avoid contact with outsiders.

One of the key figures in the scandal, Xin Yanhua, is also keeping a low profile. She is the aunt of a 16-year-old victim and she helped write the letter posted in the Internet by the fathers. She has declared she only wanted to help promote “society’s harmony and stability,” but now she’s afraid. She fears the factory owners and even local officials could try to take revenge. Xin has since gone underground. “I shiver when I think about my future,” she wrote in a newspaper before disappearing.

Looking for Haipeng

The Hao family in the province of Henan, though, is talking. In recent weeks, they have gone from the party office to the petition office, from the police to the local government authority -- and as the farmer Hao Xing'an says, they have been "warded off, sent away, and pushed around."

His son Haipeng has been missing since 2004. In March of that year, a recruiter visited the village and took the boy, then 14 years old, with him. He promised him a job in a restaurant in the neighboring province and 500 yuan (€50) a month plus food and shelter. "We trusted the man," says the father. "He was an acquaintance of a neighbor."

The family is desperately poor: The grain and peanut harvest brings in 2,000 yuan (€200) a year before taxes. Fortunately, the 26-year-old daughter Nana has found a job with the Korean firm Samsung in southern China. Now she is pregnant and waiting at home to give birth.

During the first six months he was away, her brother called often from his mobile phone. Then he asked for €320, explaining to his parents that he wanted to open a restaurant with a few friends. They believed him and borrowed money from the neighbors. They had a number for the bank account -- 9559981680160115414 -- but no name.

That was on Aug. 8, 2004. Afterwards, every trace of the boy was lost. His uncle Xingwei finally set off to look for him in May of 2005. But when he arrived at the restaurant where Haipeng was supposed to be working, all he discovered was that the recruiter who took his son was in prison for robbery -- and that the name he had given was false.

When Chinese television this May first reported on slave workers in the country, Haipeng's uncle got back on the bus. He travelled from one brickyard to the next but found nothing. In June, he headed north. There, roof tiles are manufactured and according to some reports, children from the tropical province of Yunnan are being held there. Maybe Haipeng is among them?

When he got there, though, the local police told him: "There are no brickyards here." But a few hundred meters from the main road, he found one kiln after the other. They have been closed down since, with just a few workers remaining to pull the last remaining tiles from the ovens. Some of them even run away at the sight of the stranger. Some youths are from the province of Szechuan, with traffickers having paid their families prior to taking their sons away. Now, the bosses refuse to let the boys return home even though there is no work -- they have paid for them, after all.

One Last Hope

Hao visited as many kilns as he could find, passing out cigarettes and showing people his nephew's photograph. He found no one who recognized the picture, nor was his trip to the provincial capital successful. The police allowed him speak to a few freed workers, but no one knew his nephew.

The family has one last hope. The man who hired their son is being held in a prison in Taiyuan, the provincial capital. Perhaps, the family hopes, he might know something about the son's fate.

Getting to the desired information requires crossing provincial frontiers, in China often as tight as international borders. First the family wants to convince the police in their own village to take the case. Then the officers need to be prepared to drive to Shanxi with them in order to request assistance from the local police so that the prisoner can be interrogated -- an expensive proposition.

But the question remains how such blatant human trafficking could take place under the watchful eye of the Communist Party, which once proclaimed it wanted to free the people from their feudal bondage and slavery.

The Beijing-based journalist and historian Wu Si blames the “local tyrants” that have existed in China for centuries and continue to exist under the communists. The 50-year-old Wu is the deputy editor in chief of the magazine Yanhuang Chunqiu and his book "Hidden Rules," which details the history of power in China’s smaller municipalities, has been banned by the censors.

Just like in the old days, Wu says “the political functionaries surround themselves with the local businessmen, who pay for their food, trips and the education of their children. As compensation they allow the bosses to do as they please.” That’s at least how it was in Shanxi. Of the 3,347 brick factories in the province, 2,036 didn’t have a license to operate. The officials pocketed the regular fines for such offenses, but left it at that.

'They Promised Me That Much'

In order to avoid such injustices in the future, Wu urges “allowing real trade unions. We should ease the access to information and let the people elect their government. If there’s an opposition, no village mayor will tolerate forced laborers.”

In Yubao, the town where young Ma Yongqiang lives, the brick factory slavery isn’t discussed. Ma’s parents are ashamed to tell their neighbors about their son’s fate. They believe they’ve lost face because he came back -- regardless of what he experienced -- just as he left: poor and unsuccessful in life. They found in the newspaper the name of a lawyer who wants to fight pro bono for Ma and the other victims.

But first the brick boss Yao has to be found. Ma isn’t asking for much -- no compensation for the beatings or his imprisonment. “I want 4,500 yuan, 1,500 for each month,” he says. “They promised me that much.”

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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