HONG KONG—A group of schoolchildren in the eastern Chinese province of Jiangsu has appealed to Premier Wen Jiabao to close an unlicensed fireworks factory that they fear is endangering their lives, and which villagers say is being protected by a murky web of local political power and influence.
"There is a fireworks factory behind our school. It hasn't got a license to operate. It has been in illegal production for seven or eight years now," the children and teachers of Honglin Elementary School said in a statement read out by 11-year-old Huang Minghao on an RFA call-in show.
"Every day they let off several dozen fireworks for testing. This makes us all very frightened. If the factory were to explode, we would all be blown to pieces," Huang told RFA Mandarin service's Listener Hotline program.
If the factory were to explode, we would all be blown to pieces.
"All the teachers and students in our school would like to ask you, uncle, to send our request to Grandfather Wen Jiabao in the State Council in central government, to ask him to stop this factory's production immediately, so we can continue with our studies in peace, and go on to become the next generation of talent, and be of use to our country," Huang said in a message broadcast shortly before International Children's Day on June 1.
While there were no suggestions of forced child labor in Huang's story, his plea echoed the March 2001 tragedy at Fanglin Elementary School in Jiangxi Province.
In that incident, angry villagers said a massive explosion that killed 50 children was caused by an illegal fireworks factory using students as labor. The government blamed a "madman" for that blast.
Honglin villagers told RFA they wanted to get the factory—just 20-30 meters from the school, and even closer to a residential area—closed down before they faced a similar disaster on their own doorstep.
"I think that this is a very dangerous industry," Huang's school principal Zhu Zhonglu told a RFA's Investigative Report as it followed up on the 11-year-old's initial phone call.
"The factory butts onto a narrow road, and then there is a residential area next to that...There are so many explosives in there—if they exploded, we'd all be finished," Zhu said. He said that the noise of test explosions frequently disrupted lessons.
Villagers blamed the factory's continuing operation on a cosy and intricate web of relationships between local officials and the factory owner, although corruption allegations were denied by the Jiangyan municipal party secretary.
"The Taizhou and Jiangyan areas are the most corrupt in the whole province. It's enough to have money. Then you can do what you like, and nobody can do anything about it," Huang Minghao's grandfather, Huang Xikang, told RFA.
Taizhou is the birthplace of President Hu Jintao, who was recently pictured with children from China's Communist Party youth league on International Children's Day.
"There's an old Chinese saying: if you have money, you can even get ghosts to come and work for you. And those government officials are certainly working for the factory."
Honglin village chief Huang Hua agreed. "The factory owner is very well connected with all the local government leaders. They know each other very well," he said.
There's an old Chinese saying: if you have money, you can even get ghosts to come and work for you.
Initially, when contacted by RFA, factory owner Wang Qiaozhen denied she was manufacturing fireworks, saying the factory now produced cardboard tubes.
But she later replied to questions regarding safety as if they were relevant to a fireworks operation.
Asked what would be the result of an explosion at her factory on the surrounding buildings, Wang said: "Who can guarantee that? I watch out for the safety of my factory. The only thing I can do is to request my safety supervisor to take care of safety issues."
Wang, who is a Party member and the delegate for nearby Louzhuang township to the National People's Congress, admitted not having a license.
"Oh that license," Wang said. "We used to have one, but then the licenses were rescinded in the Taizhou area of Jiangsu Province. They took all those licenses away without giving us any paperwork. We are a legal enterprise. I enable many villagers to make a living," she told RFA.
The head of the production safety bureau in nearby Jiangyan City said that the Honglin Fireworks Factory had ceased production.
"It doesn't produce anything. Hasn't done for nearly five years now," the bureau chief, surnamed Zhang, told RFA.
But village chief Huang Hua said there were still sounds of fireworks being let off from within the factory in late May, although he had heard nothing in the week before speaking to RFA.
It was impossible to tell if the factory was still in operation because no-one was allowed inside, he added.
"This factory used to have an operating license once, but all the licenses in this area were withdrawn in around 2001 Jiangyan city banned production of fireworks because there were too many accidents happening," he said.
Fish-farmer Xiao Zhengyou also reported hearing blasts recently.
"This factory is still in production. It's very close to my fish pond. I feel nervous every time I go there to feed my fish," Xiao told RFA reporter Bai Fan.
Officials in the municipal government of Jiangyan city gave widely differing responses when asked about the factory. An official surnamed Zhang in the alcohol and tobacco bureau, which also has responsibility for fireworks, said the government would thoroughly investigate the allegations.
"Our position on this issue is that we must carry out an investigation into the situation...We take complaints like this from local residents very seriously," he said.
His municipal Party boss appeared to take a different view.
"This problem doesn't exist. If such a thing did exist, we would have investigated it," Jiangyan municipal Party secretary Gao Jiming said.
"It's not very likely that there would be people living right next to a fireworks factory," Gao said, adding that he didn't know of the Honglin factory.
Asked if a close relationship between the factory owner and officials in local government enabled it to continue production, Gao replied: "Not likely. Those officials wouldn't want to lose their jobs. We have very strict regulations."
Original reporting in Mandarin by Bai Fan. RFA Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie.