07/21/2007, 00.00
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Slave labour “normal” in today’s China, says Han Dongfang

The founder of China’s first independent trade union talks about the brick kiln slave scandal. Slave labour is symptomatic of society in which those in power distort the common good for personal gain and hide their misdeeds. Deng Xiaoping’s black and white cat analogy has led to a society where the powerless get crushed.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The presence of thousands of slave workers in Henan and Shanxi brick kilns was an open secret. Police knew about it; local authorities knew about it. Brick buyers and many residents knew about. But no one did anything about it. For Han Dongfang, founder of China’s first independent trade union, it “is just the tip of the iceberg” of a political system that breeds indifference and dishonesty.

On his Hong Kong-based website, Han summarises what happened. On June 5 a local TV station in Henan broadcast an appeal by some 400 local parents whose children had been abducted and “sold into hard labour in areas with large clusters of brickyards such as the Shanxi municipalities of Yongji and Linfen for 500 yuan a head.” Here they were segregated for years, beaten if they did not work or tried to run away. Soon their appeal was on the internet and the scandal front page news.

On June 25, police teams from Henan and Shanxi Provinces jointly raided illegal brick-kilns and rescued 532 rural workers, among them 109 were allegedly minors. 

Public opinion was incensed and government leaders demanded inquiries and probes. Indeed, after a month long investigation, 95 low level officials were punished; but 24 were sacked, most of the others were merely reprimanded. No senior official was held accountable or punished in anyway.

There is nothing new about his, says Han. Hundreds have died in mining disasters enraging the public at the collusion between the authorities and dishonest owners who disregard safety measures to make more money.

The real problem is that “in the eyes of many bosses, workers in China are merely ‘human tools’ to be paid as little as possible. At the brick-kilns of Shanxi, workers were paid nothing at all.”

In other plants “bosses often illegally confiscate identification papers to prevent workers from quitting or running away when they cannot take any more, and many factories withhold most of workers' monthly wage packets, allowing them only pocket money.”

For Han this downward spiral is best encapsulated by some of Deng Xiaoping most memorable remarks, namely that “it doesn't matter whether a cat is white or black, it is a good cat if it can catch mice; “ that “stability” comes “before all else;" and that the “imperative” is “development.”

When Deng took power in 1978, his "good cat" theory became the basis for economic development-oriented policymaking at every level of government—eventually it also became the perfect pretext for unscrupulousness, the pursuit of a fast buck (or yuan) and general lawlessness.

Corrupt officials have been able to use the imperatives of economic development and stability above all else to pursue personal advantages and slam shut every kind of protest.

In the 1990s, to maintain GDP growth at 10 per cent, “the government has turned a blind eye to environmental pollution, uncontrolled land use, misuse of resources, the widening gap between rich and poor, collapsing public order, and the erosion of morality.”

Workers have borne most of the burdens and costs imposed by the process of national economic development, and yet their living conditions have not kept pace with growth. Instead “a new working-class” has emerged. Not only does it suffer “a dual exploitation by capitalists and bureaucrats, but must also bear social discrimination due to the household registration system.”

In a society where “it is no longer possible to distinguish good from bad, black from white and right from wrong, what can ordinary villagers do except fall silent and steel themselves? What can they do? If there is an opportunity to profit at somebody else's expense, why should they let it pass?”

“For over 20 years, the government has been fomenting a morbidly envious and brutal competitiveness, and fostering an indifference that only intensifies and condones such behaviour. Chinese people are coming to see their society as increasingly dehumanized.”

“The Shanxi brick-kiln scandal is only the tip of the iceberg. If the Chinese government does not change course and abandon obsolete ideas, not only will the Chinese Communist Party be threatened with extinction, more importantly the ordinary Chinese people will have no future either.”

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