How The Reporter Found The Shanxi Brick Kiln Slaves

(yWeekend)  The Reporter Describes His Experience In Uncovering The Illegal Child Laborers In Shanxi.  By Xu Ying (徐英).  June 21, 2007.

[in translation]

According to the Shanxi provincial public security bureau's notice of June 16, they have inspected 3,702 small brick kilns and coal mines in Shanxi and rescued 22 minors.

The number of minors rescued so far is actually only a small fraction of the existing child laborers.  When the Henan TV Metro Channel reporter Fu Zhenzhong (付振中) first reported on this affair in the program <Shanxi illegal kilns are illegally using child laborers> on May 19, as many as 1,000 parents came down to the TV station to ask for help in finding their missing children.  In early June, the Tianya forum post <Children sold to illegal brick kilns in Shanxi: four hundred fathers cried for help>, several hundred children were stuck in those illegal kilns.  The Southern Weekend reporter Zhu Hongjun personally observed more than 20 child laborers in Liumu village, Wanrong county, Shanxi province.  But on June 14, the Wanrong county public security bureau and the labor/social security bureau told the media that their "preliminary investigations did not discover any child laborers at those brick kilns."  On June 19, the Ministry of Public Security claimed that they have sent a work team of crime investigators and inspectors to investigate in Shanxi whether the local public security organizations had been derelict in duty.

Since the number of children sold to work as slave laborers was so huge, reporter Fu Zhenzhong went to Shanxi three times.  His identity was also revealed, and he was attacked by a kiln owner when he attempted to take the children away with him.  He felt that it was very hard for a single person to save the child slave laborers at the brick kilns.  But Fu Zhenzhong's reporting got the major media such as CCTV to join in the investigation of the "illegal child laborers in the Shanxi illegal brick kilns."


Here is Fu Zhenzhong's story in his own voice as told to yWeekend:

We went to Shanxi first on May 9.  Our news hotline had received a tip from two parents in Zhengzhou city.  They said that their children had been kidnapped.  I thought that this was going to be a routine report, because my impression was that kidnapped children are usually two or three years old.  After talking to the parents, I felt that the case was suspicious: a dozen or so children around 15 to 16 years old had gone missing in the neighborhood of the Zhengzhou train station.  They also said that the children were sold to work as slave laborers at illegal brick kilns in Shanxi.  They had just brought back the 17-year-old Xiao Lei who was freed from an illegal brick kiln in Shanxi.

Xiao Lei said that the slave traders took 5 or 6 children of about the same age from Zhengzhou city (Henan) through the cities of Xinxiang and Jiaozuo in Henan to Jincheng (Shanxi) to sell to the illegal brick kilns.  This reminded me of the "history of black slave trade" and it was astonishing that this type of thing can still happen today!  After informing my supervisor about this situation, we left that day with the two parents and Xiao Lei to Shanxi.  There was a big wheel on the road from Jiaozuo (Henan) to Jincheng (Shanxi), which Xiao Lei pointed out and said: "This is the road that we had traveled on."

As a result of the first trip, we brought back several dozens of photographs of minors taken at the 100 or so brick kilns near Yuncheng (Shanxi).  This allowed many parents to identify their own children when the program was broadcast.  This included a family named Zhang in Shengcai (Henan) who saw their son Zhang Daofu in a photograph.

This led us to make our second trip to Shanxi to find the children.  Three media outlets and several dozen parents went in 5 vans along three different routes.  Our three reporters from Henan TV's Metro Channel took Zhang Daofu's parents and several other parents to the brick kiln where the children had been found.  A second team consisted of a parent who had gone many times to Shanxi to seek her child plus reporters from two media outlets and they were going to file a report with the public security bureau.  We talked beforehand and we agreed that as soon as our team spot any children, we would tell this second team to call the police.  The third team consisted of some other parents who were going to other brick kilns to find children.

Based upon my recollection, we arrived at the Lingwuying brick kiln, Meiyang town, Linyi county, Shanxi province before 11am on May 23.  The kiln owner almost discerned our identity as media because we looked like office workers and quite different from parents who spent all their lives in farming.  The kiln owner pointed at me and the cameraman and asked, "What do those two do?"

"They are my relatives who are helping me to find my children," said the parent.  "They took time off from work to help us."  So this fooled the kiln owner for the moment and staved off trouble.  We did not disclose who we were during the entire process.

On our second trip to the Lingwuying brick kiln, there were many of us and we were fully prepared.  We brought a digital video (DV) camera.  Based upon the program needs, we needed to film scenes of rescue because secret filming was not enough.

I took the parents of Zhang Daofu to the work shed at the entrance of the brick kiln.  "There is not such person," said the woman after she looked at the photograph.  "Since we are here, please let us take a look!"  We pleaded with her.

Before she could even agree, the parents of Zhang Daofu dashed inside.  Among the workers at the brick kiln, they found their child.  The parents embraced their child and cried, and then they attempted to take the child out.  By prior arrangement, I immediately called and asked the other team to file a case report and bring the police over immediately.

When the family almost reached the gate, the subcontractor stopped them and said: "You cannot leave.  I have to call the boss."  The subcontractor was quite unafraid as he looked straight into the camera.  "The children were obtained from Zhengzhou.  We had to spend 300 to 400 yuan to buy one."  The kiln owner got the news and came over.  He said that the children had come voluntarily.  "It is alright if you don't want to work anymore.  You just go ahead and leave.  I don't want you."  After an hour or so, the police came.

At this brick kiln, I found a Hebei youth.  When I came the first time, I also spotted him.  He had wounds on his face, his hands were bleeding, he had bare arms and feet and he was inarticulate.

I wanted to take him away.  "Do you want to go home?"  "Yes," the boy mumbled.

I turned around and told the policeman: "I want to take him away."  "If this is not your family, you may not," said the policeman.

Then the policeman saw our DV camera and asked: "Where do you come from?"  So I quickly showed him my press card and letter of introduction.

"So how come you did not speak the truth when you called for help?  Why did you say that you were parents instead of reporters?" the policeman asked us.

"The parents made the police report.  We are here to document," I quickly explained.

On May 25, I brought the other parents to the Pingxian brick kiln, Yongji city.  We begged for a long time before the foreman would let us go in to find the children.

Although the foreman said that he would let us go in, that did not mean that he would let us roam everywhere.  He followed us from behind.  But there were many of us and he could not keep track of everybody.  So I quickly asked the children: "Where do you come from?"  "How old are you?"

Some of these children had been in the kilns for months already and they must have been beaten silly.  They did not respond to any questions.  But when I asked a 1.7m tall boy, he replied: "I am from Fengqui (Henan) and my name is Wu Shuchen."

"Can we take this Henan child with us?" I asked.

"That is unacceptable.  I spent 400 yuan to buy him."  The subcontractor and the kiln owner both refused.  The kiln owner also got some villagers to surround us.  When I saw that things were going badly, I dialed 110 (note: the police).

There was a standoff of about ten minutes or so.  The owner charged over and he raised his left hand which was holding a cigarette.  Someone to this left side held him back.  After a while, the owner charged over again but this time the police stopped him.  The policeman who stopped the owner was in his 40's; he was physically strong and he wore a checkered t-shirt.

We told the policeman: "We are Henan parents looking for our children.  This child is from Fengqiu (Henan) and we want to take him away."

"If this is not your child, you cannot take him away," the policeman refused.

"Then you must let us bring the parents of the child here.   You cannot just let him stay at the kiln."  After a long discussion, the policeman agreed to let the child stay in the police station for a day.  On the next day, Wu Shuchen's older brother came and took him away.

On June 14, a group of four us came to Liumu village, Tonghua town, Warong county, Shanxi province.  We came from different media outlets to report on the "child slave laborers in the illegal Shanxi brick kilns" affair.  We met in Zhengzhou and we formed a team to come to Shanxi together so that we look after each other.

There were several dozen brick kilns on both sides of the road in the village.  But the iron gates were locked, the machines have stopped and not a single kiln worker could be seen.  Where did they go?  We decided to go to the Wanrong (Shanxi) Labor and Social Security Bureau to inquire.

At the county labor and social security bureau, the main gate to the office was padlocked, but there was an opened side door.  We went in and we saw a man writing something at desk.

"Where is everybody?"  We asked after introducing ourselves.  When the man learned that we were reporters, he introduced himself as the Labor and Social Security Bureau office director.  As for our request for an interview, he said that he needed to confer with his superior.  After saying so, he left the room.

There was a pile of papers on his desk, including the report that he was working on.  I took a peek and it was a report about illegal child laborers.  The report said that there are 62 brick kilns in Liumu village employing more than 2,000 workers.  The report also included a situational summary for 2002, which showed that the Liumu village brick kilns had received complaints about their practice of employing illegal child laborers ... I quickly photographed the papers.

The office director returned quickly, for the county people agreed for him to be interviewed by us.  "Our people have all gone over to Liumu village to clean things up and they have not returned yet."

So we hurried over to Liumu village immediately.  From faraway, we could hear the commotion coming from the second floor of the Liumu village committee office building.  We got to the second floor, and we saw all sorts of shabbily dressed people.  Some were standing, while others were just sitting anywhere.  Some of them might have been summoned last night and did not get any sleep, so they were just sleeping on the corridor.  There were thirty to forty people out there.  The offices were being used by the people from the county public security bureau and county labor and social security bureau.  The kiln owners were being called in one at a time for interrogation.

The CCTV reporter immediately filmed this scene.  A young skinny man in police uniform came out of the offices and we rushed over: "You responded really quickly with a sense of emergency!"  We flattered him first.  "What are the results of the investigation?"

"The preliminary investigations did not lead to the discovery of even a single child slave laborer ..."  When the young policeman saw the cameras aimed at him, he straightened his jacket and adjusted his buttons.

A man not dressed in uniform came out of another office.  We went over and "intercepted" him: "Are you with the Labor and Social Cecurity Bureau?"  "Yep," he replied.  His response was identical to that of the policeman: "The preliminary investigations did not lead to the discovery of any child laborers."

This perplexed me, because we saw no less than 20 child laborers yesterday at the brick kilns.

Early in the morning on June 13, we went with some Henan parents to look for children in Liumu village, Tonghua town, Wanrong county.  According to reporters who came here previously to look for children, there were many younger children.  In order to avoid suspicion, I disguised myself: I took off my short-sleeve shirt and I went into the village topless; I held a photograph of a child and I spoke with a Henan accent.

We cajoled and groveled until we got admitted into a brick kiln.  There was a 1.3m tall child working on making bricks: he was standing next to a brick machine and he poured the pre-mixed yellow earth into a round mould; he picked up the mould and walked a few steps; he turned the mould upside down so that the brick falls out.  The brick mortar and the mould weighed about 3 to 4 kilogram.  I am 1.8m tall and I would find it tough to do this a dozen times a day.  This child has to repeat this routine more than a hundred times a day.

I went over and I asked him: "How old are you?"  "Seventeen," he replied without a thought.  When I asked more questions, he stepped away and kept working.

At another brick kiln, I asked a small boy: "Do you get paid?"  The boy refused to look at me and he ignored me altogether.

I said: "I run a restaurant.  You can come with me."  Then he asked: "Where is your restaurant?"

The boy told me that the boss promised to pay them.  The boy had been working since February, but he has not received a single cent so far.

There were at least 20 children at these brick kilns.  The youngest is 7 or 8 years old and the oldest must be only 12 or 13 years old.  On the way back, the local driver told us that there used be a lot more child laborers here before.

Where did the children go overnight?  Did someone leak the news?  I won't speculate.

On June 16, after the action team found nothing, we went to speak to the village mayor.

There were people everywhere at the village committee office, so we went downstairs to look for the mayor.  "Are the village mayor and the party secretary in?"  "They are all busy!"  In the village committee office reception room, a middle-age man with a big belly was smoking a cigarette.

At the village committee office, I suddenly found a familiar face.  When we spoke to the children yesterday, I chatted with his little dark man who was the subcontractor.

"Where are your children now?"  I went up to ask.

He recognized me: "What children?"

"You still recognize me."  I asked again.  He turned around and walked out of the village committee office.

Yesterday, this subcontractor had complained to us that the profit margins in making bricks were low and it was hard to make money.  He also told us that many of the children at the brick kiln came from Yunnan.  When he took the children away, he had promised their parents that the children would be well fed and well paid (to the tune of several thousand yuan per year).

(Wenxue City罪恶的山西黑窑事件的系列视频报导(1-13)(视频).  (Note: The critical Henan TV Metro Channel program that turned the whole case around)

Related LinkWe need investigative journalists.  By You Nou.  China Daily.  June 18, 2007; In search of the missing kiln workers  Joel Martinsen, Danwei.  August 4, 2007.