Chinese courts handed down harsh sentences last week for a large number of defendants for the roles they allegedly played at Shanxi Province brick kilns that were relying on slave labor, including child workers.
Like other chilling cases emerging from China, this has highlighted daunting problems at the most fundamental level of Chinese society, giving outsiders a glimpse at the routine abuses behind the veil of rapid economic growth.
But a few aspects of the Shanxi case stand out. It is clear that forced labor, including children, is prevalent in China. Hundreds of slaves were rescued after more than 40,000 police were mobilized to scour more than 3,000 brick kilns operating without a business license.
Some of these workers have since told of the trauma of being taken to the kilns by force, where they labored under inhumane conditions.
Even children were not spared cruel, inhuman treatment. It was the presence of children at the kilns that eventually mobilized a rescue effort. Hundreds of desperate parents pleaded with the Chinese government for help when they had reason to believe they had been kidnapped.
The parents accused local police and government officials of turning a deaf ear to their pleas and eventually colluding with the kilns in half-hearted "searches" for the missing children. Only a dozen children were found in the end, and parents and their supporters believe a large number of slaves -- most of which were minors -- were relocated before police searched the premises.
Since the Shanxi case has come to light, human rights groups and other observers have emphasized that child labor in China is not unique to illegal kilns in one province. They warn that this is simply the tip of the iceberg.
Despite so many other routine human rights violations, the country does have legislation banning child labor, which it defines as involving anyone younger than 16.
But because China lacks an independent judiciary, the use of child labor continues to be widespread, especially in rural areas.
Fueling this problem is the country's yawning rich-poor gap, most visible in the differences between the flashy and glamorous scenes of Shanghai and poverty-stricken rural areas. For the country's poorest children, attending school is not an option. Many never receive even the most basic schooling, although nine years of education is mandatory. Their families are forced to seek work for them, and the children become easy prey for abusive and sadistic employers.
More than 90 party and government officials have been disciplined so far as a result of the Shanxi scandal. The inhuman system fueling the growth of the Shanxi kilns has existed for years, and hundreds, possibly thousands of illegal kilns have been opened.
It is impossible that local officials knew nothing of the practices of these operators. In fact, some operators and owners of the kilns, it turns out, were relatives of party and government officials. All of which shows us that rather than being the isolated incident Beijing would like us to believe it was, the kiln controversy is a symptom of the systematic corruption that exists at -- and threatens -- all levels of society.
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