Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Cautionary Tale: Chinese Slave Labor

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. 

So, the worst kind of villains have created their own industry that recruits workers who have no way to fend for themselves. Liu Xiaoping and his family talked of him being tricked by a bowl of soup and promises of a living wage. Instead, his family told Demick, he endured beatings, torture and was chained at night, guarded by attack dogs.

And Demick heard stories of others, each one seemed more horrific than the last, of women sold by psychiatric hospitals as sex slaves, of a young man beaten to death after he tried to escape. Workers who were allowed one bath a year and who ate dog food they shared with the boss’s canine.

Like child victims, the mentally disabled make terrible witnesses; unlike children, authorities can dismiss their disappearances as voluntary. Such an adult face staring out from the Chinese equivalent of a milk carton just doesn’t have the same public impact. So police just don’t make them a priority. Demick’s heartbreaking story ended with He Wen, another human face – one his family hasn’t seen in months. He Wen’s father still searches for him, has traveled to factories all over the region where his son was spotted, and though he gets reports of his son’s sightings, always seems to have missed him. There are cases where such victims are transported thousands of miles away.

Kudos to Barbara Demick for spotlighting this terrible crime wave in China. As we become ever more enmeshed in that country's burgeoning economy and culture, we also need to continue to bring attention to its unsavory practices.


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dadgum said...

As evidenced by the Olympic Handbook, formerly available to read online, China finds no value in its disabled population. Not much, anyway. In it, was a statement that unlike China, Western countries do not hide their "deformed citizens". I hope we can look at these practices, effect change, and avoid the same societal views. Life is sacred, even if it isn't yours..