Revolution#107, November 4, 2007

From A World to Win News Service

Slave Labor in Today’s Capitalist China

The Real Face of the “Chinese Miracle”

July 30, 2007. A World to Win News Service. On July 17 the manager of a kiln in north China and one of his subordinates were sentenced to life imprisonment and death respectively. This followed the shocking news in June about the slave labour scandal, which revealed how people have been forced to work in brick kilns in Shanxi province.

These men were accused of holding workers in virtual slavery and forcing them to work in furnace-like brick kilns. The kiln owners ran the factory like a prison according to state media reports, using guard dogs and beatings to deter escapes.

During the trial of the accused it was also revealed that at this particular kiln they had enslaved 34 labourers, including nine who were mentally disabled. In the year before their arrest, 19 workers were injured. The state media reported that at least 13 died from overwork and abuse, including a labourer who was allegedly battered to death with a shovel. Their daily toil started at 5 in the morning and lasted for 16 to 20 hours. The slave workers were locked in a bare room with no bed or cooker, allowed out only to work in the red-hot kilns, from where they would carry heavy loads of newly fired bricks on their bare backs. Many were badly burned. They were fed once a day, given steamed bread and cold water during the only break of the day, lasting 15 minutes. Witnesses testified in court that the hard work was accompanied by lashes and beatings.

Worried that such scandalous news would tarnish the image of the so-called “Chinese economic miracle,” the authorities at first tried to give the impression that such incidents are rare and happen only due to the cruelty of some individuals and greedy kiln owners. However, it came out in various reports that working in brutal and sometimes slave conditions appears to be common, if not in all of China, at least in some inland provinces such as Henan and Shanxi. The authorities, at least on the provincial level, were aware of this situation but deliberately ignored it because of a commitment to boosting economic growth at any cost.

Hundreds of parents had been looking for their missing children and had reason to believe that they had been forced to work at the brick kilns. The government took action only when these parents posted an open letter on the Internet accusing the Henan and Shanxi authorities of ignoring them and even protecting the kiln owners and human traffickers. “A Henan reporter who had helped expose the business accused officials of keeping parents from finding missing children. ‘In our reporting, the biggest obstacle has been lack of cooperation from some authorities in Shanxi’, Fu Zhenzhong, a television reporter, told The China Youth Daily. ‘Some are still coming up with any number of ways to keep parents from rescuing their children.’” (Reuters, June 17) Finally, close to 1,000 workers were released in a series of police raids and inspections of 7,500 kilns in the central China provinces of Henan and Shanxi.

The traffickers connected with the kilns hunted children on the streets. They used false promises and even kidnapping to obtain children under ten years old and then sold them to kiln owners for less than 50 euros each.

As a result of this scandal, Shanxi courts convicted a total of 29 people for their role in this slavery. A dozen more are awaiting trial.

The Chinese government could not limit the scandal to one isolated case in one kiln, but did its best to limit the impact by punishing a score of low-level officials. Higher-ranking officials were cleared of wrongdoing. Disciplinary measures were taken against nearly a hundred so-called Communist Party members.

Contrary to what the Chinese authorities and their promoters in the West might want people to believe, there are reasons to think that working conditions in various places in China are not totally different from the situation that came to light in these kilns. For example, the UK Guardian reported June 18, 2007: “From the densely packed factory zones of Guangdong Province to the street markets, kitchens and brothels of major cities, to the primitive factories of China’s relatively poor western provinces, child labour is a daily fact of life, and one that the government typically turns a blind eye to… as Hu Jindou, a professor of economics at Beijing University of Technology, says, ‘Forced labour or child labour is far from an isolated phenomenon. It is rooted deeply in today’s reality, a combination of capitalism, socialism, feudalism and slavery.’”

(Actually, while capitalism, feudalism and slavery do mingle in contemporary China’s economy, socialism was abruptly overthrown there through a coup d’état in 1976 after Mao’s death, when those whom Mao called the capitalist roaders within the Communist Party took power by force. The continued existence of state-owned industries today is not a sign of socialism, but of a state capitalist sector of the economy in which the working people are just as exploited as in the private sector.)

The same report refers to a different case in Guangdong province. Middle school students from faraway Sichuan Province complained that they were being abused through a work-study programme that supplied young workers from western China to an electronics assembly plant in the southeastern industrial boomtown of Dongguan, where labour shortages are common. They were forced to work, supposedly to pay back their school fees. Students complained that they worked 14-hour days, including mandatory overtime. They also said that their pay was withheld from them. In some instances, those who wished to quit the programme had no way of telephoning their families or paying for transportation home.

A similar report of this sort appeared in the German magazine Der Spiegel  February 6, 2005.  Ullrich Fichtner wrote that the two-decade long economic miracle of Shenzhen province, whose annual economic growth rate has hit 15 percent, rests on the shoulders of young women factory workers such as the malnourished Tang Shotsen, who works from early morning until late night seven days a week making coffee machines for 500 yuan (45 euros) a month, and the young women who assemble plastic dolls, put together watch bands from unfinished leather, make trainers and glass parts for copy machines and do numerous other jobs. In these factories the risk of injury is high. Labourers are often badly injured, losing a finger or burning part of their body, but there is no sign of insurance and medical care, only a few plasters and bandages.

The journalist Fichtner reports that women constitute 70 percent of the 5.5 million seasonal workers from all over China in Shenzhen and the factories in the surrounding area. In some parts of the province such as Nanshan, a high tech centre, this figure is even higher. The migration of young women started in 1980 when Deng Xiaoping called Shenzhen, a city in Guangdong province, a laboratory for the watchword he adopted for China: “To get rich is glorious.”  The march of young women searching for a better life coming from all over China to Shenzhen hit a peak in the mid ’80s and early ’90s, when the news of this place of “dreams” spread all over China. Soon these dreams turned out to be illusions and Shenzhen a place where life pours out of the workers and into the products they make.

One result was that a vast number of women ended up working as prostitutes in the city and surrounding area. The German report describes the lives ofwomen such as Chou Venil, who works in a massage parlour seven days a week from 8 am to 8 pm for 54 cents per hour. The report continues,  “Older women with bad teeth stand on the sidewalks holding photo albums. These albums are in fact catalogues of prostitutes, with page after page of passport photos of deformed and swollen faces indicating the vanished dream of the poor girls. The older women whisper, ‘Girls, mister, they are young, they don’t have AIDS, mister…’”

Prostitution seems to be an integral part of this economic boom. These women face huge problems. Their dreams have vanished, and now they have to fight for a job they never dreamed of: “In the southern boom city of Shenzhen, thousands of armed police were deployed earlier this week to quash a protest by more than 3,000 prostitutes and karaoke hostesses who were left without jobs after a crackdown on massage parlours and discos.” (Guardian, January 21, 2006) The city is notorious not only for the street prostitutes but the huge number of concubines kept as “second wives” by foreign businessmen, especially from Hong Kong.

Behind this reality is another bitter truth: many of those young women who came to Shenzhen are from families where female children were not welcomed. They come from places where giving birth to a girl once again is considered as a disaster and infanticide of baby girls is common. This evil disappeared or vastly diminished after the new democratic revolution in 1949 and China’s advance toward socialism. It has once again erupted in the last couple of decades in China, along with many other aspects of capitalism and other oppressive economic and social relations.

These examples from Guangdong are particularly important because, unlike Shanxi, where the slave labour brick kilns are located, Guangdong is not an isolated, backward area but a coastal province emblematic of China’s rapid growth and the success of its export industries. It is the country’s richest province. Guangdong’s success depends on the super-exploitation of workers from other, far poorer areas, especially the hinterlands, and, to a large extent, women. Without the kind of backward conditions in the countryside symbolized by slavery in the brick kilns, China’s modern industry would not be so profitable.

We often hear about the “Chinese economic miracle” after the socialist road was abandoned following the death of Mao in 1976. Since then China’s economy has achieved a growth rate of about ten percent a year. But this growth has been achieved at the cost of enormous and galloping disparities, among them the economic gaps between the cities and the countryside, agriculture and industry, and the better-off coastal provinces and the poor interior, as well as the reversal of the emancipation of women. These inequalities are the source of enormous profits and enormous suffering. They are also a sign of a radically different social system since Mao’s time.

Mao said that the real difference between capitalism and socialism is not what a society is called but what road it is on. Socialism could not just immediately abolish what it had inherited from the whole history of exploitation, including these and other major oppressive social differences, above all the division of society into classes, and all the ideas, customs and practices that came from those property relations. But when the proletariat held state power, the revolutionaries under his leadership fought to reduce the very same gaps that have become yawning chasms in China today. They did this by policies based not on what produced the most wealth in the short run, but what would bring about the balanced, equitable and liberating growth of society as a whole.

Socialist China did achieve economic miracles. Its sustained growth rate was enormous compared to comparable countries like India. In only a few decades the people’s average lifespan doubled. But the question was not how to produce the most, but the purpose of production and consequently how to produce. Should the wealth produced by labour increase social disparities and inequalities and further enslave the working people? Or should it increasingly allow the working people to become masters of production and all of society? Should the working people be beasts of burden, or should they lead the vast majority of people in the revolutionary transformation of China and turn it into a base area for world revolution to liberate humanity and bring about communism, a globe freed of the chains of the social inequalities and relations that bring such misery and hold back human potential?

The policies of the leadership of the communist party regarding these issues, Mao said, determine whether or not a country is really socialist, and whether or not that party is really communist. The truth of this idea is dramatically demonstrated in the contrast between China of today and of Mao’s day—the contrast between his China on the road to an enormously different future for the whole of mankind, and the hell-bound country of the 21st century that has brought back so much of the evil of the past.

Since the capitalist roaders enshrined private property, made profitability the highest goal and dissolved the collective forms of ownership and way of life in the countryside, much of the two-thirds of the population that is still rural has been abandoned. In the cities, the vast majority have become wage slaves—able to earn a living only as long as their labour enriches capital. Even the country’s most profitable and highest-tech industries are dependent on super-exploitable rural migrants, and most of those businesses are in the hands of foreign capitalists. Poverty and oppression is a condition for the wealth the country produces. China has replaced socialism with globalized capitalism.

While it is certainly true that the vast majority of people are not kept in the kind of literal slavery found in the brickyards, what has been happening in the poorest and most backward areas of China sheds light on the kind of society it has become. Most importantly, it shows what kind of social relations have come to characterize Chinese society. Where working people were once masters and liberators, now once again they are slaves.

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