The furor in China surrounding the discovery that children and the mentally handicapped had been kidnapped and sold into slavery is showing no sign of abating. It seems increasingly likely that the controversy will mark a significant milestone in the evolution of the country's civil society. Police said they had rescued more than 500 people from forced labor in brick kilns, where they were worked 18 hours a day and beaten if they tried to escape. Some 30 arrests have been made and more are expected following a massive police rescue operation involving 35,000 officers checking 7,500 work places.
The crackdown began after some 400 parents of children who they suspected had been kidnapped published an anguished letter on the popular internet forum Tianya Club on June 7. The letter said they had managed to rescue some 40 children before running into stiff resistance from the local authorities in the northeastern province of Shanxi, where most of the kilns were situated. The letter sparked a storm on the Internet, and by June 13 a member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party expressed concern about the issue. The police action soon followed.
Populist criticism on the internet has been at the forefront of the outrage — and may be a harbinger for how grassroots protests are heard by Chinese authorities in the future. As is often the case, coverage of the incident has been gently moved off the front pages of Chinese newspapers. Nevertheless, the subject is still a hot topic on Chinese websites, where much of criticism was directed at the authorities for failing to intervene to stop the human trafficking and enslavement of the brick kiln workers. Even in usually docile official publication like the English language China Daily, the sense of shock and outrage many Chinese felt on seeing footage and pictures of the dazed, sometimes bleeding workers being led out of the kilns was evident, even if relegated to op-ed pages.
"None of the synonyms for 'anger' is strong enough to express the public's fury," wrote columnist Liu Shinan. "I want to ask: What were local government officials doing when the children and other workers were tormented?" Liu also noted that "Nobody would believe that such atrocities... are happening in today's China — 58 years after the Communist Party-led revolution put an end to the old society." Another columnist in the same paper praised the role of a provincial newspaper reporter in exposing the slave trade and argued that China needed more investigative journalism.
Such criticism of the authorities and calls for a greater watchdog role by the tightly controlled media reflects the extent of shock many Chinese feel at the gruesome revelations. But it also shows the way the party is being forced to offer some accountability to a citizenry that is increasingly affluent and unwilling to accept that they have no ability to counter the arbitrary power of the state. The party leadership recognizes that it must adapt to the changing attitudes or risk losing control. "There is room to maneuver and the party is willing to negotiate so long as there is no challenge to its authority," says Nicholas Bequelin, a China researcher for Human Rights Watch.
For both sides, figuring out the limits of the evolving relationship between China's rulers and its people is clearly a work in process. The slavery controversy culminates a month that has seen a string of incidents demonstrating the different ways the authorities choose to handle controversial issues. For several days in early June, for example, thousands of mostly middle class protesters filled the center of the coastal city of Xiamen. They were calling for the government to cancel plans to build a chemical factory in a city suburb. Though the authorities didn't attempt to stop the highly unusual protests, they later called for participants to report to police stations and officers tracked down a number of demonstrators who had been photographed at the scene. Yet the government subsequently announced that it would suspend the project and the State Environmental Protection Administration in Beijing said the Xiamen government should reconsider.
The other incidents ranged from violent demonstrations against forced abortions and police brutality to an anti-pollution protest that took place entirely online. All were fueled because of the internet, and in particular the country's 20 million strong bloggers. Says Bequelin, of hte possibility for change in China: "The role of the internet is the one aspect of the kiln story that made me optimistic."