As many as 1,000 children may have been sold into slave labor in central
China, enduring maiming and brutality in primitive brick kilns, state media said
on Friday amid an expanding scandal about official neglect.
Workers stand at a police station after they were rescued
from a brickworks in Hongdong County in Linfen, north China's Shanxi
province, May 27, 2007. [Reuters]
The owners ran the prison-like kilns in Shanxi and Henan provinces with
fierce dogs and thugs who beat the children at will, state television said. One
accidentally killed a child with a shovel and buried the body at night, it said.
The workers, mostly young males, some of whom were kidnapped from around the
country, were shown on television sleeping on bricks inside the brickworks with
doors sealed from outside with wire and windows barred to prevent their escape.
Some had horrific, festering wounds on their black feet and around their
waist, presumably from burns from the kiln.
"We wanted to run but we couldn't," one disheveled worker was quoted as
saying. "I tried once and was beaten."
An army of 35,000 police in central China had so far rescued 468 people after
checking 7,500 kilns, Xinhua news agency said.
As many as 120 suspects had been arrested.
"Our conservative estimate is that at least 1,000 minors from Henan have been
trapped and cheated into back-breaking work in these Shanxi brick kilns," a
reporter from Henan said on the current affairs program Oriental Horizon.
The program showed workers who had recently been rescued -- ragged, emaciated
and mute and some bearing injuries.
Xinhu said Yang Aizhi, a 46-year-old mother, was one of the people who
alerted the public to the scandal.
Her 16-year-old son went missing on March 8 and she heard that he might have
been kidnapped and forced to work at a kiln.
Yang went to more than 100 kilns in Shanxi and discovered that "most were
forcing children to do hard labor," she was quoted as saying. Some children were
still wearing their school uniforms.
When the children were too tired to push carts, they were whipped, Yang was
quoted as saying.
Despite the high-profile rescue effort, criticism is rising of official
indifference to the poor farming families.
Local media reports and Web sites have cited what they have said is a
petition from fathers of boys kidnapped from Henan. They complained that Shanxi
police were unwilling to help Henan authorities to find and rescue the children.
"We are too weak and our children face constant threats to their life. We can
only beg the government," said a copy of the document.
The China Youth Daily noted that local officials had apologized for failing
to rescue the workers.
"But we have even more reason to ask why was it only after the case was
widely reported by the media and shocked the central leadership that the local
government then thought to apologize to these poor rural workers," it said.
"The local officials, did they really not know about the situation or did
they choose to look the other way?" the China News Service asked.
The People's Daily said tacit approval or even collusion from poorly funded
local governments was to blame.
"At present, some grassroots governments are grappling with huge debts, so
they are sluggish in administration and even gain incomes illegally, causing
instability in rural areas," it said.