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China's disabled exploited as slaves

In an economy where manual labor is in demand, ruthless recruiters often prey on the mentally disabled. One man, held at a brick kiln, is one of countless slaves who endured torture and deplorable living conditions.

February 26, 2011|By Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times
  • Mao Xiulian shows the sores on the legs of her son Liu Xiaoping, 30, who was burned with hot bricks while made to work as a slave at a brick factory.
Mao Xiulian shows the sores on the legs of her son Liu Xiaoping, 30, who was… (Robert Gauthier, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Xian, China — At 30, Liu Xiaoping is more boy than man, with soft doe eyes that affix visitors with the unabashed stare of the very young and glisten with reluctant tears when his bandages are changed.

It takes effort not to show the pain of the wounds that read up and down his body as a testament to the 10 months he was held captive at brick factories in the Chinese countryside.

His hands are as red as freshly boiled lobster from handling hot bricks from a kiln without proper protective gloves. On the backs of his legs, third-degree burns trace the rectangular shape of bricks, a factory foreman's punishment for not working fast enough. Around his wrists, ligature marks tell of the chains used to keep him from running away at night.

Liu was found wandering in the small town of Gaoling, north of Xian, on Dec. 22, 10 months after his family reported him missing. He was wearing the same clothing as when he'd disappeared in February, but the trousers were glued to the festering wounds on his legs and the gangrene of his frostbitten feet stank through the gaping holes in his shoes.

Despite his injuries and an intellectual impairment, he was able to tell how he'd been tricked by a woman who bought him a bowl of soup and promised him the equivalent of $10 per day, good wages for manual work in rural China.

Instead, he became a slave.

"They took advantage of my brother because he has a mental disability," said his 26-year-old brother, Liu Xiaowei. "They forced him to work, beat him, tortured him, and then when he was too weak to take it anymore, they threw him out on the street."

In an adrenaline-paced economy with a chronic shortage of manual laborers, ruthless recruiters often prey on China's mentally disabled. The worst offenders work with the brick kilns that are feeding a seemingly insatiable appetite for the new apartment complexes and malls cropping up around the countryside.

"The brick factories can never get as many workers as they need. The work is heavy and a lot of people don't want to do it," said Ren Haibin, the former manager of one of several brick factories where Liu said he had worked. "Possibly the mentally disabled can be intimidated and forced to work.... They are timid and easier to manage."

In the Beijing offices of Enable Disability Studies Institute, a nongovernmental organization, director Zhang Wei reels off a list of more than a dozen cases over the last decade in which people were enslaved in appalling conditions, each more nightmarish than the last.

Young women have been sold by psychiatric hospitals as sexual partners and wives; mentally disabled young men have been imprisoned as forced laborers in coal mines and brick factories. In 2008, a brick factory owner beat a young man to death for an escape attempt. In December, Chinese authorities rescued 11 workers who had been sold by a supposed charitable organization for the disabled to a brick factory more than 1,000 miles away.

Reports on conditions in the factory said the workers hadn't been allowed to bathe in more than a year and were fed the same food as the boss' dog.

"Every year there are cases like this," Zhang said. "The worst are when they are violating the rights of the disabled in the name of charity."

Police often won't exert much effort when a mentally disabled person disappears, he said, and even if they're rescued, their testimony is not taken seriously because of their impairment.

"This is not like when a child goes missing. Police will just assume they've run away," Zhang said. Some families, he says, won't even bother to report. "They might feel that they've been relieved of the burden."

That was not the case with Liu Xiaoping. He comes from a loving family who occupy the ground floor of a shabby apartment in southern Xian, where his father sells remedies to people too poor to afford a doctor. Since Liu escaped from the brick factory, he has shuttled between home and the hospital, while his family tries to raise money for skin grafts.

Liu doesn't speak much. When he does, the words come slowly but clearly, as though they've required some concentration. He left school in the third grade, when it became clear that he'd never be able to read or write beyond an elementary level.

But he was strong and healthy. Neighbors would always call on him to help harvest wheat and potatoes and he would hang out at the market looking for odd jobs unloading trucks or carrying parcels.

"He wanted to stand on his own feet," said younger brother Xiaowei. "He was kindhearted and thinks that everybody else is too."

On Feb. 28, 2010, the night of the Lantern Festival that ends the lunar New Year holiday, he and his family were visiting relatives in Shanyang, a town south of Xian. That night, Liu failed to come home, something that had never happened before. His family reported him missing the next day and printed posters that they distributed around the neighborhood.

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