China’s Crackdown in Context 3May11

He Zhimin’s hands shake as he holds a small coloured photograph of his son. The shakes had started nine months ago, when his son vanished. On the back of the card, he has printed his son’s details. “He Wen, Age 35, 1metre 75cm. Missing…”

Unlike Ai Weiwei, China’s best-known dissident and artist who was arrested boarding a plane to Hong Kong, on April 3rd, He Wen’s disappearance has gone largely unreported by the world’s media and there are no high profile calls for his release. But his story holds the key to understanding China’s most repressive crackdown since Tiananmen 1989.

China’s inflationary squeeze is starting to hit ordinary people. The cost of living is up and many of the poorest are struggling to fill their rice bowls. Last year there were more than 100,000 protests across the country often sparked by individuals or communities rising up against local or provincial cases of corruption, land-development, employment or human rights violations. Most of those protesting have faced official disinterest, intransigence and violence.

In January this year an unknown group, inspired by events in North Africa and the Middle East, launched their own Jasmine Revolution with calls on twitter and other bulletin boards for a united protest against the repressive, single-party rule of the Communist Party.

The Party fears a generalised, national protest could provide the focus and glue to the millions of increasingly marginalised and disaffected. It is these “faceless millions” who could pose the real threat to the government’s long term strategy and the cohesion of the Chinese state itself.

He Zhimin is one of them. He’s a farmer in Sanyuan Town, a few miles outside Shaanxi’s provincial capital of Xian.

Last June, a woman approached his son at the local market, offered him a job and money and then abducted him. Mr He says the woman was part of a trafficking gang and that his son was abducted and forced in to a life of slavery – like thousands of other mentally impaired young men.

“My son is a kind-hearted child,” Mr He says. “He is as tall and strong as I am. He’s able to work but he has the mental age of a child. Our whole family searched the town for him but he never came back. I have to remain positive because one way or another I’ve got to keep looking for him. Whether I find him alive or his corpse, either way I must find my son.”

Mr He immediately reported the disappearance to the police, but he claims they refuse to take on the case. They refused to take witness statements and he wasn’t even allowed to register He Wen as a missing person.

Mr He is left to search for his son on his own, printing off thousands of ‘Missing Person’ posters and distributing them around the county. Within a few weeks, he began getting calls from eyewitnesses, many claiming they had seen him working in local brick factories.

“As my son is mentally impaired, they made him work in the kiln,” Mr He says. “It’s easy to control him. The bricks were still hot when they made my son move them. They told me he was beaten all over his body with bricks [ if he didn’t work hard enough?”]
With hundreds of brick kilns across the county, Mr He has an almost impossible task. In the last nine months he has visited 40 kilns and come across many other cases of mentally impaired people who have been abducted into slavery. As a result of his investigations, he’s been threatened and at times even violently attacked.

A couple of months ago Mr. He got a call about a man fitting his son’s description in a village 50 miles north of Sanyuan.

It turned out not to be his son, but 32 year old Liu Xiaoping. He too was mentally impaired and had been abducted and enslaved in brick factories for 10 months. At times he worked with Mr. He’s son.

Xiaoping’s father says during the day his son had to work in a brick factory and by night he was chained to a bed. “If he wasn’t working as they wanted, the factory owners would get a hot metal rod and burn it across his face. Sometimes, they purposefully put hot bricks on the back of Xiaoping’s legs as punishment.”

Xiaoping’s injuries got so bad that he couldn’t do any more physical labour and he was thrown out onto the streets and that was when Mr. He found him. “If Mr He hadn’t found him then, he would have been dead within two days,” Mr Liu says

When Mr He found him he had been tortured so badly the toes on his left foot had to be amputated. He spent the next 41days in a specialist burns unit at the local hospital until funds ran out. His family are now bankrupt and the State is doing nothing to support them.

Xiaoping’s parents and Mr He both talk in desperation of the state’s failure to help them. And they are not alone. The Beijing based NGO “Enable Disability Studies Institute” estimate that at least 10,000 people with mental impairments have already been abducted and 1.5million are at risk. At best the authorities are impassive, at worst they are actively trying to cover it up.

Yang Bin, from the charity says it’s incredibly difficult to prosecute the traffickers and the owners of the brick factories: “China’s legal system is weak. Modern day China is like a lawless jungle which enables the traffickers to prey on the weak and vulnerable and with impunity.”

In December last year, a local journalist broke the story that 137 mentally impaired people had been abducted from a government run welfare centre in Sichuan Province. Reports were horrific. A dozen people were found barely alive in a brick factory in Xinjiang Province, others were found dotted around the country, most often in brick factories. Survivors spoke of being tortured with electric cattle prods, some were beaten with bricks, some died, others simply disappeared when their slave masters took them away when their bodies were too beaten and exhausted to work.

Within days, the story went nationwide. People were horrified and wanted answers. As a local journalist started to dig around, the trafficking ring behind the abductions came into focus. A man had set up a front-company and claimed to be providing jobs and training for patients.

At the time he was even lauded in the local press and given an Entrepreneurial Award by a local politician. Chinese journalists were quick to jump on the State’s failure to protect the mentally impaired – one of many cases where the country’s social safety net is creaking under the pressures of growth and change. A Communist Party Official was implicated and arrested.

Then, like so many other occasions when public anger rises and protests escalate the State police went in and silenced anyone reporting on the case. When we tried to investigate as part of n ‘Unreported World documentary for Channel 4, we too were arrested. In the eyes of Beijing, reporting on state failure cannot be tolerated.

Stories like these and the abduction of He Wen strike at the heart of China’s problems. Cracks are opening up as China feels the growing pains of massive social upheaval and economic development.

In name this is the People’s Republic where the state is supposed to protect all. But in reality, as China powers ahead the most vulnerable are being left behind and all too often exploited. This is the lack of ‘social harmony’ the Party fears most.



2 Responses to “China’s Crackdown in Context”

  1. Reena Says:

    Hello Mr. Steeds,

    When I looked at your blog, I was hoping you were giving us good news about Mr. Zhimin’s son being found alive and healthy.
    I am hoping that one day soon we will hear from you stating that his son has been found. Have you heard anything else about Mr. Zhimin’s situation?
    Please keep yourself safe and healthy, as I always stated the world needs people like you, so you have to be around for a long time to come.May all of your dreams come true.
    Can you let us know if you are going to have a new show soon?

    Wishing you health, happiness, love and wealth.

  2. Tan Says:

    Hi, Olly
    I was hoping for any good news that might come out from your report on the kidnapped of Mr. He Zhimin’s son. I couldn’t even imagine what would be like to searching for your love one without any help from an authorities/government that vow to serve the people. The thought of it make me angry. It also made me realize that no matter how we look at the world there always some dark and horror place that another human being had created for another fellow human being. History just keeps on repeated itself over and over because of greed and power. I wonder if any of that person, who called himself or herself “human”, but acts as if they were crawled out from the pit of hell think that they could carry all those money and power with them when they have to plunge back into hell. Sorry, for all this angry word, I hope and pray that Mr. Zhimin and others like him would find their love one soon. And Olly, thank you again for willing to exposed yourself to danger (got arrested) so the whole world would know what is going on behind those big wall. Take care of yourself and stay safe, Tan

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