MAC: Mines and Communities

From bloodstained mine-shafts to brickyard slavery, blind faith in Deng Xiaoping theory is the real

Published by MAC on 2007-07-17

From bloodstained mine-shafts to brickyard slavery, blind faith in Deng Xiaoping theory is the real culprit

Chinese Labour Bulletin -

17th July 2007

The Background

On May 9, 2007, a small group of parents from Zhengzhou in Henan whose children had disappeared arrived at their provincial television station to ask for help in their search. Henan TV sent its reporter Fu Zhenzhong from its Metro Channel to accompany the parents on three secret visits to an illegal brick-kiln in neighbouring Shanxi Province, and on May 19, the channel broadcast an expose called "Road of Illegal Labour." In response, the station received over a thousand appeals for help from the parents of other lost children. On June 5, the television programme Dahe Luntan, aired a collective appeal entitled "Road of Illegal Labour! Children have been sold to illegal brick-kilns in Shanxi Province, causing 400 fathers to grieve and pray for their release". In their appeal, the 400 fathers wrote: "Most of the children were lured into or forced into cars at Zhengzhou railway and bus stations. They were then sold into hard labour in areas with large clusters of brickyards such as the Shanxi municipalities of Yongji and Linfen for 500 yuan a head." The text described the appearance of a group of such children at the time of their release, with long hair, crawling on all fours like savages. Some had been completely cut off from the outside world for seven years, some had been beaten up for attempting to run away, and some had had their backs beaten raw with red-hot bricks by the foremen. The youngest was only eight years old.

This appeal was immediately posted on the Internet to give it a wider audience. And so the Shanxi illegal brick-kiln slavery scandal broke. On June 15, Chinese President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao indicated they wanted the issue investigated and settled, and the Ministry of Labour and Social Security, Ministry of Public Security and the All-China Federation of Trade Unions formed a joint working group to go to Shanxi to launch a probe. Two days later, an officer from Guangshengsi police station in Hongdong County in Linfen called Li Ding was detained on suspicion of neglect of duty. Another five local government officials were detained on the same grounds later. On June 22, the joint working group held a press conference in Taiyuan, at which Shanxi Provincial Governor Yu Youjun apologised to the brickyard victims and their families. Then, on June 25, police teams from Henan and Shanxi Provinces jointly rescued 532 rural workers from illegal brick-kilns, among whom 109 were allegedly minors.

The Anger

The anger of Chinese leaders was sincere, because this incident was deeply shaming. Accordingly, they could not afford to be lenient to the law-breakers. However, in their comments, government officials have deliberately channelled public scrutiny in the wrong direction. They have sought to portray the Shanxi illegal brickyard scandal as an isolated unfortunate incident, and the culprits as a handful of individuals - rotten bosses and their henchmen - abetted by a few negligent local government officials. They have made it sound as though this huge scandal basically has nothing to do with them. Indeed, after a month long investigation, 95 low level officials have been punished and only 24 have been sacked, most were merely reprimanded. No senior officials have been held accountable or punished in anyway.

The story has started to follow a very familiar pattern. Initially public outrage was intense and condemnatory posts on the Internet almost exhausted the available stock of Chinese pejorative words. However, cynicism and a sense of compassion fatigue soon began to set in. After all this outrage was merely the latest of many and reflected a more general anger that has developed across the nation. I remember that after the gas explosion at the big state-owned Chenjiashan mine in Tongchuan, Shaanxi Province, on November 28, 2004 that killed 166 miners, I was told by family members of many of the victims that at least a week before the explosion, a fire had broken out, and that the miners had asked not to be sent back down the mine until it was extinguished. But the mine boss, who stood to earn a bonus of 400,000 yuan for quota over-fulfilment, threatened them with dismissal if they refused to go underground. He urged them to dig faster, saying the fire would not catch up with them that way. For the sake of a 400,000 yuan bonus, 166 lives were thrown away, and 166 households were cast into despair. At the time, outraged online commentators condemned the accident as a preventable and entirely man-made disaster, and the incident generated almost as much passion as the illegal brick-kiln scandal.

Two months later, on February 14, 2005, 214 more people died in a gas explosion at the Sunjiawan colliery of the state-owned Fuxin Mining Group in Liaoning Province. This mine had an annual production capacity of 900,000 tonnes, but Fuxin Mining ordered the output target to be raised to nearly 1.45 million tonnes. To cut costs, the mine outsourced the coal-extraction and management to an outside private contractor, with unqualified labour doing the work. The mine also violated China's mining labour regulations by modifying the shaft design, causing excessive concentrations of gas to build up. Worse, malfunctioning gas-detection equipment was left un-repaired for over four months. The inevitable spark came from a counterfeited lighting system protector. Again the online community erupted with rage, demanding that someone should be held accountable. The online memorial to the 214 dead miners still exists.

Much of the public's anger has been directed at the blatant collusion of government officials and businessmen in their brazen drive for profits. After the August 7 flooding of the Daxing mine in Xingning, Guangdong Province, in which 123 miners died, it was revealed that half of the 65 shareholders drawing dividends from the mine were from the local production safety bureau, tax office, public security bureau and other government bodies. One police officer had shares worth about 30 million yuan. As before, public opinion and the online community reacted with fury, but by this stage the outbursts had a tinge of ineffectual ritual.

As early as March 22, 2003, when 72 people were killed in a gas explosion in the Meng Nanzhuang coal mine near Xiaoyi city in the Luliang mountain area of Shanxi Province, a Xinhua news agency reporter had written a feature datelined Taiyuan entitled "We do not want bloodstained coal!" Over four years have now passed, and Chinese mines are still tainted by the blood of Chinese pitmen. And now we have another affront to basic human dignity to face: the Shanxi brick-kiln slavery scandal.

Public outrage and online outbursts have petered out into ritual indignation. But with the government still relying on its old tricks, trying to deflect popular feeling in the brickyard slavery scandal onto the site owners and local government officials, all of us who have felt passionately about these things should stop to reflect a little. From bloodstained mine-shafts to brickyard slavery, who or what is really behind it all?

A pause for reflection

From 1993, when 187 women workers were burnt to death at the Zhili toy factory in Shenzhen because the steel-mesh doors of their dormitory had been sealed, to 2007, when over 1,000 people were illegally confined and forced into long-term slave labour at brickyards in Shanxi; from the degradation of tens of millions of employees of state enterprises flung into dire poverty in the name of reform, to the thousands of mineworkers who every year die needless deaths underground while trying to support their families ... Over the last dozen years or more, the government's economic growth targets have been met, more and more foreign investors have been lured into the China market, more and more people have been able to join the small vanguard of nouveaux riches in China, and the newly rich have become still richer. Collusion with business interests is rife in local governments all over China, and employers increasingly disdain and flout the country's labour laws. Anger is rising at the violation of the legal rights of workers in China, and the government's grand vision of "creating a harmonious society" in China has become a joke among petty officials.

Yet the last dozen years or so have seen steady progress in labour legislation. The Zhili toy factory conflagration in 1993 gave impetus to the creation of the Labour Law of the People's Republic of China. In June, just before the Shanxi brickyard slave labour scandal broke, the National People's Congress Standing Committee was in the last stages of canvassing opinions for its draft of its new Labour Contract Law. On June 1, the Shanxi Provincial People's Congress had just approved its workers' rights protection regulations, thought to be China's first provincial-level regulatory safeguard specifically for migrant workers' rights. But in reality, touching up provisions of labour rights legislation in China has not strengthened workers' rights; on the contrary, employers have become even more brazen in violating them. In the eyes of many bosses, workers in China are merely "human tools" to be paid as little as possible. At the brick-kilns of Shanxi, workers were paid nothing at all. When gas in underground mine shafts grossly exceeds permitted levels, miners are forced to go down under threat of dismissal; when, in gemstone-processing factories, dust concentrations exceed permitted levels and visibility is down to one meter, workers have to operate equipment without any form of dust protection; to complete order contracts, workers in toy factories are forced to do overtime until they faint at their machines or even die from exhaustion. In these factories, bosses often illegally confiscate identification papers to prevent workers from quitting or running away when they cannot take any more, and many factories withhold most of workers' monthly wage packets, allowing them only pocket money.

In all this, I believe the underlying problem is the theory devised by Deng Xiaoping, which has become the guiding force behind the Chinese government's economic development policymaking for the last 30 years.

What is Deng Xiaoping theory?

Deng Xiaoping theory can be summarised by its three maxims: (1) "It doesn't matter whether a cat is white or black, it is a good cat if it can catch mice;" (2) "Stability before all else;" and (3) "The imperative of development" (fazhen caishi ying daoli). In 1962, when the Chinese countryside suffered widespread famine, farmers in some areas turned to a prototype household contract responsibility system to save themselves. During intra-Party debates, Deng cited his "good cat" theory in support of these farmers' actions, which at the time were regarded as heresy. When Deng took power in 1978, his "good cat" theory became the basis for economic development policymaking at every level of government. After 1989, Deng stated that "stability is the overriding consideration" and used this tenet to justify imposition of iron-fisted rule. His remark about the "imperative of development" came in 1992, during his Southern Tour (Nanxun) which gave a major impetus to China's open door growth policy. Since then, these three maxims, each with equal weight, have underpinned China's economic development.

As a means of combating famine, helping China to recover from the political turmoil of the Mao era and allowing it focus on building the economy, Deng's "good-cat" theory was of obvious temporary benefit. Economic development is the key to raising household incomes, so it was the natural centrepiece of government policy. But after it evolved into the long-term strategic basis for the economic policymaking, the "good-cat" theory eventually became the perfect pretext for unscrupulousness, pursuit of a fast buck and general lawlessness. And after this model of "economic development," in particular the unscrupulous, fast-buck-oriented type, became the unchallenged "imperative," people were inevitably reduced to mere "human tools" for growth. Since 1989, the "good cat" camp has monopolised political power and trampled on the law, taking up the cry of "stability before all else" and using it as a cudgel to keep all opposition at bay. Workers at state-owned enterprises fighting for reasonable compensation after buyouts, workers at foreign-owned companies striving to get fair wages, and workers seeking benefits for on-the-job injuries or occupational sickness are all in the same position. If local officials do not feel like accommodating them, or if officials' collusive interests with business are threatened, they can repress all these demands, accusing the workers of unlawfully "upsetting stability" or "imperilling development".

The dangers of Deng Xiaoping theory

Since the 1990s, China's economic growth has come to resemble a wild horse that has broken free of the reins. To maintain GDP growth at 10%, the government has turned a blind eye to environmental pollution, uncontrolled land use, misuse of resources, the widening gap between rich and poor, collapsing public order, and the erosion of morality. Workers have borne most of the burdens and costs imposed during the process of national economic development over the last 20 years or more, but their living conditions have not kept pace with growth; instead their economic and social status has faded year by year. As tens of millions of employees of formerly state-owned enterprises are thrown out of their jobs, rural migrant workers, who are emerging as the new working-class, not only suffer dual exploitation by capitalists and bureaucrats, but must also bear social discrimination due to the household registration system.

A fish, they say, rots from the head down. Since the government can disregard social and environmental costs in the name of economic development, why, we may ask, should owners of illegal brickyards, "black" coal mines and factories (many of whom came from humble origins themselves) care about the dignity or even the lives of their workers? Since public authority can be wielded at the personal discretion of petty officials, who can line their pockets under the cover of the "good cat" theory, why shouldn't ordinary people try to get rich by any means too, regardless of whether it is legal or not? Since government officials can use their authority to put tens of millions of employees of state-owned enterprises on the street, without caring whether they live or die, and then themselves become millionaire or even billionaire bosses overnight, why shouldn't employers from the rank and file of society be able to get rid of workers who fall ill on the job, and refuse to compensate them?

In truth, we should save some of our condemnation for the villagers near the Shanxi brickyards because they allowed this human tragedy to carry on day after day without making any move to expose it. But another question must be addressed. Since the police, workplace supervisors and other government officials - who can use their positions to take bribes and break the law with impunity - turned a deaf ear to the appeals for help of relations of the slave labourers, why should the villagers act differently?

In China, the mantra "economic development" has already become a kind of fig leaf masking every ugly social phenomenon. Officials at all levels pursue every opportunity for personal gain while using the cudgel of "stability before all else" whenever anybody attempts to strip away this fig leaf covering their actions. In a topsy-turvy society where it is no longer possible to distinguish good from bad, the whole from the broken, black from white and right from wrong, what can ordinary villagers do except fall silent and steel themselves? What can they do? If there is an opportunity to profit at somebody else's expense, why should they let it pass?

Seen in this light, the slave labour scandal should come as no surprise. In fact, among the "good cat" disciples are many people who envy the brickyard owners for their ability to make money in this way. In a country where severe political pressure is exerted in the name of "stability before all else" and the "imperative of development," where everywhere there are people detained, beaten or worse for the crime of "disrupting public order" while legally fighting for their rights and exposing corruption, who can afford to invite needless trouble by worrying about other people's problems? For over 20 years, the government has been fomenting a morbidly envious and brutal competitiveness, and fostering an indifference that only intensifies and condones such behaviour. Chinese people are coming to see their society as increasingly dehumanized.

This, then, is the pass to which China has been brought by Deng Xiaopeng (who was clever but lacked magnanimity and wisdom) and his theories. The result is that "clever" ideas of one man have enslaved the minds of 1.3 billion people. But the most worrying thing is this: Most of the people who rail loudest against the owners of the illegal mines, brickyards and factories are firm believers in Deng Xiaoping theory!

Breaking free from Deng's legacy and starting anew

Deng Xiaoping's "good cat" theory undoubtedly succeeded in dragging the country out of the maelstrom of political strife in 1978, and gave a much needed kick-start to the economy. But after 1989, the government should have made "creating a harmonious society" its rallying cry rather than "stability before all else". And after his Southern Tour of 1992, Deng should have embraced the concept of "people-centred" policymaking and not the "imperative of development." If there had to be an imperative then it should have been the "imperative of socially healthy development." If this had been the case then the corruption of government officials at every level might not be as entrenched as it is today, and corrupt officials would not be the principal source of political and social instability in China that they have become today. Tens of millions of workers at Chinese state-owned enterprises would not have been swept into poverty. Workers at foreign-owned companies in China would not be left to fend for themselves when beset by sickness on the job. And our coal, the life-force of the state economy, would not be so deeply stained with our blood, nor would the destruction of our environment be so complete. Nor would we have to eat or drink poisoned powdered milk, eggs, fish, salt, water and oil. Illegal brick-kilns, coal mines and factories would not have been able to spread everywhere. Chinese workers would not have become "human tools" for implementing state development policy and filling the pockets of bosses, as they have done today.

During nearly 30 years of China's reform and open-door policy, Deng Xiaoping's" good cat" theory, the emphasis on stability and the "imperative of development" have not only created a shelter in which countless corrupt officials have flourished, turning the government's anti-corruption crusade into a laughing-stock, it has also allowed the emergence of countless illegal mine, brickyard and factory owners who pose a constant threat to workers' health and lives, and who offend human dignity at the most basic level. The Shanxi brick-kiln scandal is only the tip of the iceberg. If the Chinese government does not change course and abandon obsolete ideas, not only will the Chinese Communist Party be threatened with extinction, more importantly the ordinary Chinese people will have no future either.

Home | About Us | Companies | Countries | Minerals | Contact Us
© Mines and Communities 2013. Web site by Zippy Info