HONG KONG—Two years after shocking revelations of a thriving slave trade in northern China led to the well-publicized trial of a brick-kiln boss, parents in the north-central city of Zhengzhou say young people are still regularly being abducted for sale as slaves.
Parents who have lost children and young people to human traffickers now band together and travel the country doing their own detective work, amid a lackluster response from the authorities to the continuing scandal.
“Often the first we know that these people have got lost is when they arrive back in the village,” Wang Changyi, a farmer from the central province of Henan who lost his own son to the slave traders, said.
“Like the son of Zhang Aihua. That happened to him. He went to Zhengzhou to sell snacks, and to deliver lunchboxes to construction sites. He was stuffed into a sack by three men, thrown into the back of a truck, and taken off to the brick kilns to be sold,” Wang said.
One of the main problems here is that we don't have child protection legislation."
Yang Jianchang, Shenzhen Municipal People's Congress
Zhengzhou, as a major transportation hub for northern China, has one of the busiest railway stations in the country, and many people are reported missing in the city every year.
“They were selling people at 300 yuan (U.S. $44) each,” Wang said. “They were able to kidnap seven or eight people a day, and were taking them away in one vehicle. He was just walking along the street, and was accosted by three men who covered his mouth and stuffed him into a big sack.”
Guo Jiyong, the son of Zhang Aihua from a village near Zhengzhou, escaped with his life from the brick kiln in Shanxi where he was being forced to work, villagers said.
Guo escaped from an illegal factory in Nanyang, where he'd been forced to work for two-and-a-half years, Wang Changyi said.
“When he got out, his hair was more than two feet long. He told us that conditions were truly appalling in that place. He said they wept every day because they were truly powerless. He escaped in the middle of the night.”
If you call 110 to report these things, the police do nothing.”
Wang Changyi, Henan farmer
“If he hadn't succeeded in escaping, he would have died, because he would have been worked to death sooner or later anyway. Those places are terrible, he told us,” Wang added.
He said Guo described seeing young people beaten to death for trying to escape the brick kiln.
“He said that he made his escape with two other people, both of whom were caught and beaten to death with sticks,” Wang said.
“He said all the kids in that place had been beaten into a terrified state. We took him back there to look for the other kids, and he was also terrified to be there again. He didn't want to carry on; his courage was completely broken.”
Wang said he and other parents of abductees had spent several months looking for their children in Shanxi.
“The kids in those places didn't dare to call out when they saw us there. If we spoke to them, they wouldn't say a word. That was because they were terrified of being beaten. They didn't even dare to tell us their hometowns.”
Government-backed network helped
Another farmer's son, Jiu Wenjie, 15, was finally rescued from an illegal brick kiln in Kaifeng city, Henan province, after being taken there to work for no pay.
He was released after his relatives contacted a government-backed information network aimed at tracking down missing persons, a relative surnamed Zhang said.
“He has already been rescued. He wasn't in a mine. He was in a brick kiln, a place where they make and fire bricks,” Zhang said.
“There are people who make a living out of this business. It costs a certain amount to transport someone, for example. It's a business ... They don't really talk about the details of what happened to them when they get home,” said Zhang, adding that the boy's mother, Zhang Xiaoying, made several trips to illegal brick kilns in Shanxi to try to find him.
“He was made to work from the crack of dawn,” Zhang said.
“He wasn't in Shanxi, but here in Henan all the time. I didn't find out until I asked him. He said he was slightly better off there than he might have been somewhere else, because there they treated them well as long as he agreed not to try to run away.”
“If you did your work every day, they wouldn't beat you. You had to start work when you got up in the morning, take a break for lunch, and carry on working until nightfall.”
Hundreds of families
Wang said that he and group of other parents on the trail of missing family members had seen appalling conditions inside brick kilns in the northern Chinese province of Shanxi, where a large number of the kilns are concentrated.
“There are a lot of us here who have lost our children and young people,” said Wang. “It's not just one family whose kid we went to look for that time in Zhengzhou. There are several hundred families affected.”
“We have been to the illegal factories and we have seen how many kids there are there too. These places exist all over China,” he said.
“That day we went it was raining, and the kids were in the factory working barefoot, even though the weather was very cold that day. Their feet were frozen into a terrible state, wading around in clay pits all day.”
Several generations of family planning controls in China have meant that the missing children, many of whom are of adult age but still unmarried, represent the only hope a family has of continuing its line.
They are often also the only hope the elderly parents have of economic assistance in their old age. Wang was sobbing as he spoke of his family's suffering through the abduction of their only heir.
“We worry and fret about our child all day, every day,” he said.
“I go to the hospital to see why I have a headache but I'm not sick. It's this situation. Now, there are only us two people in our family home. We only had the one child. We can't have another anyway because my wife has been sterilized. How are we to spend the rest of our lives?”
“In the countryside, people bring up kids so they will have someone to take care of them in their old age. But now we have no one to take care of us at all,” he said.
Police inaction alleged
Several villagers said police had refused to respond after being told that their children were being held illegally.
Chinese young people are still often referred to as “children” when they are unmarried, regardless of their legal status as adults.
Police told parents they were unable to take a missing persons report until the person had been gone for 24 hours.
“If you call 110 to report these things, the police do nothing,” Wang said.
“That time when we discovered there were illegal brick kilns operating in Yongji, we called 110 to report it and we went along to the police station. But they never sent anyone to check it out, and we waited for a long time. In the end, they told me not to bother waiting anymore, because they weren't sending anyone.”
Miao Lisong, parent of missing 25-year-old Miao Xupeng, said the issue had been given scant coverage by China's official media since the high-profile trial of brick kiln boss Wang Bing Bing in 2007.
“The media used to take notice of this story, but now they're not allowed to report it,” Miao said from the railway station on his way to search more brick kilns in neighboring Shanxi province.
“There are some journalists who planned to come to interview us but then have been turned back before they arrived here. This has a very bad effect on our country. Most media aren't allowed to touch it. All they want to do is put out good news, but they don't want to hear the bad news,” Miao said.
“Ever since the story broke about the brick kiln incident I have been to Shanxi six times,” he said. “There are three brick kilns in Shanxi. I asked them to look at photographs. They said they had seen my son. But I don't know where they have taken him since we started to make enquiries.”
“Perhaps they took him outside the province, to another part of the country.”
The media used to take notice of this story, but now they're not allowed to report it.”
Miao said returning abductees had also reported being taken to work for no pay in illegal factories in Guangdong.
“They were all sold for 1,000 yuan each out of Zhengzhou and taken to Guangzhou,” Miao said. “Some of them were tricked into going, while others were simply kidnapped.”
Yang Jianchang, a representative at the Shenzhen Municipal People's Congress, has been campaigning on behalf of abductees since 2007.
“I first brought this up in 2007,” said Yang. “There are a few places where it is concentrated, where law enforcement is pretty weak and there are loopholes which can be exploited.”
“One of the main problems here is that we don't have child protection legislation,” he added. “Another is that there isn't enough social cohesion to prevent these things happening. And a third is that the anti-trafficking squads don't do their jobs with enough zeal.”
In 2007, the official People’s Daily newspaper, mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party, voiced outrage over the revelation that children were being abducted to work as slave laborers. “How could officials in the area have connived with such audacious and appalling behavior to allow this situation to arise under their very eyes?” it said.
While Beijing has recently said it will remove the 24-hour waiting period for child abductions, parents also called on police to take the abduction of vulnerable young people, who may have legally become adults, more seriously.
“Peng Wenle was the only son we had,” Shenzhen-based migrant worker Peng Gaofeng said. “So the effects are being felt by four older people. We simply can't bear it. Our grandmother has already taken to her bed and can't get up again ... My wife has lost 20 pounds. This has taken a huge physical and psychological toll on us all.”
Quicker action sought
Meanwhile, another parent of an abductee, Sun Haiyang, called on police to react when cases were first reported.
“They refuse to take a missing persons report any sooner than 24 hours. But who knows where our kids will have been taken by the time 24 hours have passed?”
“We knew that our kid had been taken by a man in his forties. But the police refused to do anything until 24 hours had elapsed. A lot of cases have been the same way. They could have been solved if only the police had agreed to act sooner,” Sun said.
Nancy McBride, National Safety Director for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said there is no waiting time to report a missing child in the United States.
McBride said her center works in close cooperation with law enforcement at federal, state, and local level, circulating photographs of the missing child to the public.
It also gives out information about the child to the media and displays it on roadside billboards with a description, with cases including circulated photographs showing a one-in-six success rate.
Original reporting in Mandarin by Kou Tianli. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.