China shocked by footage of child slaves being beaten and whipped

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The Independent Online

It has made for horrifying viewing on Chinese state television - hundreds of child slaves beaten with shovels, whipped by thug overseers, guarded in concentration camp-like conditions by vicious dogs, sores festering on their bodies as they toiled without end in a brick factory in China's dusty heartland.

The TV footage shows hollow-eyed teenage boys, many of them kidnapped from their homes around China, sleeping on beds of brick in hellish dormitories, the doors tied shut with wire and the windows barred.

As evidence of official neglect accumulated, the fate of the children prompted President Hu Jintao to demand an investigation into what happened in the brick kilns of Shanxi province.

But for now, the sympathies are with the slave workers. "We wanted to run but we couldn't. I tried once and was beaten," said one inmate, clearly traumatised from his experience.

It is a familiar refrain, and an increasingly common one in central China. Recent days have seen a number of slave factories uncovered by police cracking down on slave labour, the dark underbelly of China's burgeoning economic growth. According to the official Xinhua news agency, around 35,000 police rescued 468 people after checking 7,500 kilns. They made up to 120 arrests.

Yang Aizhi, 46, has been looking for her 16-year-old son, who went missing on 8 March. After hearing he may have been kidnapped to work in the kilns, she went to more than 100 brick kilns in Shanxi and Henan and said that "most kilns were forcing children to do hard labour" and whipping them when they were too tired to work. Some of the child slaves were still wearing their school uniforms, she said. Ms Yang has yet to find her son.

Chinese viewers have been transfixed by the horrific images emerging from Shanxi and Henan provinces. Many of the workers were mentally disabled, but were still forced to work 16 hours a day and given just 15 minutes to eat their food.

"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," said one journalist who has been covering the scandal.

Significantly, the main official newspaper, the People's Daily, put at least part of the blame on corrupt local officials. "At present, some grassroots governments are grappling with huge debts, so they are sluggish in administration and even gain incomes illegally, causing instability in rural areas," the newspaper said.

Three weeks ago, 31 people were freed by police from slave labour at a brick kiln in Hongtong, a county about 240km (150 miles) south of Taiyuan, the provincial capital of Shanxi.