There are perhaps no worse crimes than those perpetrated against defenseless children. I include in that group adult men and women whose mental impairment leaves them childlike and just as vulnerable. In a way, when they are abused they might even suffer in an added dimension, because they’re not as physically appealing, not as cute and cuddly, which can make support, sympathy and outrage harder for a community to muster.
That’s why this weekend’s Los Angeles Times front-page story about the enslavement of mentally impaired adults in Chinese factories was so disturbing. Reported by my good friend Barbara Demick, the Beijing bureau chief for the Times, the piece tells a chilling story.
A 30 year old named Liu Xiaoping, whose look and demeanor is more boy than man, told Demick how he was enticed away from his home, held captive and forced to work for one of the many brick factories in the Chinese countryside. Xiaoping and his family recounted stories of horrific mistreatment, clearly evidenced by physical scars and wounds that have yet to heal, as shown to Demick by Xiaoping's mother in the LA Times photo (below right).
“His hands are as red as freshly boiled lobster from handling hot bricks... without proper protective gloves. On the back of his legs, third-degree burns trace the rectangular shape of bricks...punishment for not working hard enough. Around his wrists, ligature marks tell of the chains used to keep him from running away at night,” Demick writes.
This man wasn’t just punished; he was branded, like cattle. And he was treated worse than them.
Xiaoping was the microcosm story in Demick’s piece, a human face for the more widespread travesty found in a wave of brickworks springing up around the country. Demand for housing material in a Chinese building boom has outstripped supply and overwhelmed the work force needed to create that supply. Adult strength capable of hauling backbreaking loads of bricks, coupled with the feeble mind of a child who cannot fight back, makes for the most desirable of manual labor.