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China’s slave children may number 1,000

As many as 1,000 children may have been sold into slave labor in central China, enduring maiming and brutality in primitive brick kilns, state media said on Friday amid an expanding scandal about official neglect.
/ Source: msnbc.com news services

As many as 1,000 children may have been sold into slave labor in central China, enduring maiming and brutality in primitive brick kilns, state media said on Friday amid an expanding scandal about official neglect.

The owners ran the prison-like kilns in Shanxi and Henan provinces with fierce dogs and thugs who beat the children at will, state television said. One accidentally killed a child with a shovel and buried the body at night, it said.

The workers, mostly young males, some of whom were kidnapped from around the country, were shown on television sleeping on bricks inside the brickworks with doors sealed from outside with wire and windows barred to prevent their escape.

Some had horrific, festering wounds on their black feet and around their waist, presumably from burns from the kiln.

“We wanted to run but we couldn’t,” one disheveled worker was quoted as saying. “I tried once and was beaten.”

An army of 35,000 police in central China had so far rescued 468 people after checking 7,500 kilns, Xinhua news agency said.

As many as 120 suspects had been arrested.

“Our conservative estimate is that at least 1,000 minors from Henan have been trapped and cheated into back-breaking work in these Shanxi brick kilns,” a reporter from Henan said on the current affairs program Oriental Horizon.

The program showed workers who had recently been rescued — ragged, emaciated and mute and some bearing injuries.

Top officials, including Chinese president Hu Jintao and premier Wen Jiabao, chimed in to urge a speedy rescue, the central government Web site, www.gov.cn, said.

The ruling Communist Party partly owes its legitimacy today to promises of liberation for laborers in a workers’ paradise.

School uniforms
Yang Aizhi, a 46-year-old mother, was one of the people who alerted the public to the scandal, Xinhua said.

Her 16-year-old son went missing on March 8 and she heard that he might have been kidnapped and forced to work at a kiln.

Yang went to more than 100 kilns in Shanxi and found that “most were forcing children to do hard labor,” she was quoted as saying. Some children were still wearing their school uniforms.

"When the children were too tired to push carts, they were whipped by taskmasters," Yang said, adding that she had still not found her son.

Despite the high-profile rescue effort, criticism is rising of official indifference to the poor farming families.

“This is so shocking. I cannot believe that slavery still exists in parts of China today,” said an Internet user on the popular online chat room Taiya.

“Local police and officials have actually colluded with the brick factories owners, and they became their guards,” said another user, named “Crazy Z.”

Online petition
Government attention follows an online petition drive started by parents of kidnapped children.

State-run media on Wednesday reported that the online campaign included parents forming teams that rescued 40 children recently.

According to the petition, 400 fathers of missing boys from the central province of Henan had banded together to find their sons at kilns hidden deep in the mountains of neighboring Shanxi province. It added that boys were sold for $65 each to kilns.

“Our children's safety is everything, but who will help us? With governments on both sides passing the responsibility, where can we go for help?” the petition said.

Reports on the petition were carried on numerous Web sites, including one run by the ruling Communist Party's official People's Daily newspaper. Some carried photographs and television images appearing to show boys working in the kilns and parents rescuing children.

The petition's widespread dissemination online, including on a Communist Party newspaper Web site, reflected the growing power of the Internet in China, where unverified reports of a shocking nature quickly become national news topics.