ANDREA SEABROOK, Host:
From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.
MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
For many years, schoolchildren in China were taught about the evils of capitalism, tales of overseas company bosses mercilessly exploiting their workers. Now, the Chinese are appalled to learn that in their own country, many illegal, privately owned brick factories and coalmines have been using forced labor. An official campaign is now underway to free the laborers.
NPR's Anthony Kuhn visited one of the illegal factories, and he filed this report.
ANTHONY KUHN: The brick factory at the center of this scandal sits in Hongtong County in northern Shanxi Province. Machines that used to claw orange earth from the hillside and a row of coal-fired kilns that used to bake the bricks, now sit idle.
Last week, state television showed police rescuing 31 disheveled and grimy workers from this kiln. Eight of them were mentally disabled. Most of them were scarred from being burned by hot bricks or beaten by the five guards that prevented their escape. The kilns were run by Wang BingBing, the son of a local village Communist Party secretary.
China Central Television interviewed Wang before he was arrested.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHINESE TELEVISION PROGRAM)
Unidentified Reporter: (Chinese spoken)
KUHN: Do you have a business license? the reporter asks. No, says Wang. Then how can you operate? says the reporter. None of the little brick factories around here have licenses, but we operate anyway, says Wang. I'm not the only one.
The many illegal brick kilns and iron and coalmines in this area follow a similar, low-cost business model. They illegally use public lands, they subcontract out labor and production to foremen who kidnap or trick farmers from around the country into working without wages, and they bribe local officials to turn a blind eye.
A few steps downhill from the kilns, Duan Lien Yeo(ph) and his family are drying their harvest of wheat outside their farmhouse. Duan says the kilns send smoke billowing down the hill.
DUAN LIEN YEO: (Chinese Spoken)
KUHN: Bosses can get away with the polluting if they've got money and connections, he says. But ordinary citizens without connections get blamed for polluting if they so much as break wind.
Duan's wife says the foreman at the brick kiln hired her to make the only food the workers were fed, but she says she argued with the foreman.
NORRIS: (Through translator) The foreman said the bread I made was too heavy. I told him that if the bread is heavier, the workers will have more energy. The foreman got angry and fired me.
KUHN: Stories of forced labor have surfaced occasionally in recent years in China's media, but the issue achieved a critical mess when 400 parents of missing children recently posted a letter on the Internet. It tells of how they combed brick kilns in Shanxi and Henan Provinces for their children, and met with indifference and obstruction from local officials.
Jung Xiao Ying(ph) of Henan Province is one of the luckier parents. She got her 15-year-old son back from a brick kiln last week. She described some of the places where she searched for him.
CHENG XIAO YING: (Through translator) These places weren't fit for a person to live in. The men slept on the floor without even a decent blanket. In some places, they put all the mentally handicapped people together in one room. They were covered in lice. It was so bad we couldn't enter the room. There were urine and feces all over the walls.
KUHN: The scandal has rattled China's top leaders, who are now putting pressure on local officials. State media reported that police in Shanxi and Henan Provinces have so far freed 532 forced laborers, more than 50 of whom were under age 18. Police in Shanxi have arrested 168 people.
A police official in the provincial capital spoke on condition of anonymity because he was afraid of speaking on the record. He said that investigators were looking into claims that local police were colluding with brick kiln owners.
Unidentified Man: (Through translator) We're shutting this illegal places down as fast as we can find them and as soon as people report them. But there are bound to be blind spots where we don't immediately discover the problems.
KUHN: The scandal has triggered a national bout of anger and soul searching. As China Central Television put it, how could this happen? What is the matter with us? Where is these bosses' humanity? The investigative tabloid, Southern Metropolitan Daily, observed that in other countries, such a scandal could trigger a political crisis and a breakdown of public confidence in the government. But no leaders in China have so far been held to account.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Shanxi Province, China.
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