When I was a boy, my parents taught me about Hitler’s attempted extermination of the Jews, creating very early on my insatiable curiosity for all matters related to what would later be referred to as the Holocaust. It seemed so incomprehensible in so many ways. I read about people in Germany who heard the whispers of gas chambers in Poland, and of brutality beyond all belief right next door in the lovely suburb of Dachau. And they pushed the rumors aside, not wanting to know, because they were doing alright and to question was dangerous. But there is no doubt they saw their Jewish friends and neighbors disappearing, and most said nothing. And I marvelled at that and wondered how it was possible.
Today I understand it a little better. While the situation isn’t exactly analogous, I would say that most of us in Beijing know about the atrocities being performed in other, less visible and developed parts of China. To those who have been here a long time, the story of the Shanxi province brick factory using slave labor came as no surprise at all. It happens all over China, they tell me. And yet I, too, I have to admit, feel distant from such atrocities. It is as if they occur in a separate universe. Here in Beijing we have at least the semblance of rule of law, and we are comfortable and secure. Most of us. Life is good. When we hear about the brutality taking place not so far away, we may feel some outrage, we may even speak out, but then the lure of Beijng’s prosperity lulls us back into the sense of peace and of hope. China is getting better, we tell ourselves, and we can’t change the system overnight. Baby steps. Give the Party space so they can grow and acquire wisdom via osmosis as positive influences continue to raise the tide, lifting up all ships.
I began thinking about this phenomenon after I read a story linked by a commenter of yet more horror stories of slave and child labor. The kinds of stories that, were this any other country, would enrage people to the point of demanding immediate justice. But this isn’t like other countries. Here we are so tolerant, so concerned about shaking things up, lest the goose that lays all those golden eggs should be harmed. The article made me wonder how we could all remain silent; but then, I realized that like the rest of us, I wanted to push it out of my mind and focus on what really matters, making money in the booming Chinese economy. I didn’t want to think like that, I simply observed myself thinking that way. And it bothered me.
Here’s a glimpse of what’s going on right in the backyard of
Just within a week or so of the brick kiln story, there were several reports of labor abuses against children. A 14-year-old boy was killed in an explosion while filling a tank with napthalene at a chemical factory near Nanjing. A 15-year-old boy was dragged into a cotton gin and crushed to death in Nanchang after working a succession of 20-hour days. And 70 girls from rural Henan Province were brought by their teacher to work at a grape processing plant in Ningbo, where their hands bled from working 16-hour shifts.
From the densely packed factory zones of Guangdong Province to the street markets, kitchens and brothels of major cities, to the primitive factories of Chinaâ€™s relatively poor western provinces, child labor is a daily fact of life, experts here say, and one that the government, preoccupied with economic growth, has traditionally turned a blind eye to.
‘In order to achieve modernization, people will go to any ends to earn money, to advance their interests, leaving behind morality, humanity and even a little bit of compassion, let alone the law or regulations, which are poorly implemented,’ said Hu Jindou, a professor of economics at the University of Technology in Beijing. ‘Everything is about the economy now, just like everything was about politics in the Mao era, and forced labor or child labor is far from an isolated phenomenon. It is rooted deeply in todayâ€™s reality, a combination of capitalism, socialism, feudalism and slavery.’
….This was underscored by another story that emerged the same week the kiln factory abuses were revealed. Students from the Dayin Middle School in Sichuan Province, in China’s interior, complained in newspaper reports about a work-study program in which they were shipped to an electronics assembly plant hundreds of miles away, in the industrial boomtown of Dongguan, which is near the coast.
The students told about having to work 14-hour days, with mandatory overtime, and having their wages withheld. In some instances, they said, those who wished to quit the program had no way of telephoning their families or paying for transportation home.
The article tells us in painful detail how local authorities participated in what amounts to the kidnapping and enslavement of children. It’s a story so morally repugnant, so despicable in every way you’d think those living in the country where these offenses are perpetrated would be up in arms. And some are. But most of us shrug it off; it’s uncomfortable to dwell on such depressing matters, and if we don’t think about it, it’ll go away, at least figuratively.
And it works. It is very easy to have a hell of a time here and love just about every minute of if. Just focus on the positive – hundreds of millions lifted from poverty, an economy so robust it can shake the world, a mood of hope and irrepressible optimism. We can say the same about “that other country,” where life was glorious, and everyone chose to look away from the horrors right around the corner. The rising tide lifted all ships, or almost all. And no one cared to look at the ships that were being pulled down, it was just so irritating, such a downer.
I’m not complaining here about anyone – only myself. I’ve watched the change within myself as I got intoxicated on the never-ending story of success and prosperity. Stories like these, of the child labor and and mentally retarded slaves being beaten to death, they arouse me for a while, they infuriate me, and then it’s back to work, back to the bright side of China where we don’t have to worry about the poor souls in the other universe who are being enslaved, maimed, killed. These articles remind us of the inconvenient truth we’d rather not hear about, the elephant in the living room corner we hope will just go away if we don’t give it too much thought. And I’m guilty. At least it’s given me greater insight into how the human mind works, and how we can block out just about anything if by doing so we can feel safe and warm. Anything.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.