Thursday, June 14, 2007

Factory slaves: the collateral damage of 'socialism with Chinese characteristics'?

Shocking story in the Chinese news that has also registered in some Western media: 200-some slaves (or 'slaves,' using the BBC's inexplicable scare quotes) were rescued from brick factories in Shanxi and Henan provinces, central China, recently. Many of these people were children who were abducted from the capital of Henan, sold to traffickers, and forced to work for no pay under armed supervisors. That seems a pretty reasonable definition of slavery to me, BBC.

Anyway, one of the astonishing things about this story is how it came to light. Apparently a distraught mother, Yang Aizhi, went looking for her teenage son back in MARCH when he disappeared. After much fruitless searching in the city where she lived, she finally got a response to one of her "missing person" fliers from a man whose two children had recently escaped from brick factories in Shanxi and made their way back home. Yang began a one-woman mission to find her son, traveling to Shanxi and searching, factory by factory. She didn't find her son, but she found lots of other children in these factories who begged her take them with her. When she tried, the supervisors threatened her. She finally returned home to the city and posted her story on an online forum, pleading for help. Five other area parents whose children had gone missing quickly joined her.

Why, you may ask, didn't Yang go to the authorities immediately? Well, I don't know whether she did or not, but the difficulty she had in getting the local police to take action (by now it was the end of April) suggests she may have rightly believed that she would have a hard time with them. She ended up squatting in front of the offices of local police stations, weeping, until the police helped her. Word had apparently gotten around among the traffickers and factory operators, though, so by the time the police started looking into it, they had moved the slaves and protected their premises with gangs of armed thugs.

Anyway, the thing that really gets me about this story is that it wasn't until a TV show decided to run an investigative report on this situation that anything really started getting done. The reporter, Fu Zhenzhong, went to the factories himself with the parents and filmed what he saw there. Once the report aired, calls started coming in from hundreds of parents whose children were missing--1,000 or so in all--and it became clear that this was a major problem. That's what kicked off the big raids this week that saved 217 slaves: a TV expose.

Yang Aizhi has still not found her son.

Coverage in English, and more, and more.

Coverage in Chinese.

And in case you think this is an aberration, just one sensational story, check out this report from 2001.


Rob said...

Thanks for this post. I wasn't aware of this story at all. It powefully illustrates the dark side of globalization. How many consumer products that we use on a daily basis is the product of slave labor I wonder? How much of our clothing? Or appliances? Slavery still very much exists in the year 2007 and all of us are collaborators.

thirdpartydreamer said...

I think you're right about complicity, though it might not be directly connected with the products we buy. I have heard that US companies are among the most responsible businesses in China, and I suspect that's true. I'm pretty confident no US company would condone slave labor.

But at the same time, since our economic relationship with China tends to be completely amoral, and our government extols the virtue of the free market above all, no doubt that encourages the kind of warped economy that tolerates slavery as an efficient way to make a profit.