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Political structure and the Shanxi kiln scandal

"Poor governance" has been the buzzword this week in opinion pieces reflecting on the recent brick kiln slavery scandal in Hongdong County, Shanxi. Commentators lauded the watchdog role of the media and the Internet and railed against the corruption and malfeasance of Shanxi officials.

Overall, a sharp distinction was made between "poor governance" at a local level - be it the active participation of the local police or the willful ignorance of local government officials - and the central government

In the Jamestown Foundation's China Brief, Willy Lam finds the central government at least partially culpable in this scandal because of "serious lapses in the administrative ability of both Beijing and the provinces."

This is echoed in the lead editorial in the 25 June issue of China Newsweek which, though still laying most of the blame on "local officials" and "low-level political organs", discusses the central government's actions in a frustrated tone:

This case was the same old story: the illegal actions were exposed primarily because media reports kicked up a storm of public opinion, with online public opinion in particular fiercely indignant. Then the government's attention was attracted. Various central government departments personally took to the field before the local government was spurred into action, swift and vigorous, and the problem - or at least this particular case - finally found a fairly acceptable solution.

However, it's not hard to imagine that the central government cannot give such close attention or invest so many resources for each and every case of injustice among the public. For this reason, the usual way to solve problems like this should fall to the effective operation of the local government and low-level political organs. If the local government does not actively exert itself, then the attention of the central government will be substantially diminished. For example, in 2004, Premier Wen Jiabao issued instructions concerning Zhang Xubo, the young man who in 2002 was tricked into working in the Shanxi kilns and who had his legs broken by the foreman, but he has yet to receive the 490,000 yuan in compensation ordered by the courts.

The piece then asks, "When will the assurances offered by the central government to the victims in the Hongdong case become the normal state of affairs."

Cultural critic Zu Dake went one step further on his blog, indicting China's current political system for allowing, and even encouraging, the situation in Hongdong:

The Hongdong Effect in Chinese Society

by Zhu Dake

Corrupt, violent, shameless, and seriously anti-human, the Shanxi kiln slavery affair is one of the 21st Century world's darkest episodes. Those illegal brick kilns that kept thugs and dogs not only illegally trafficked in children and disabled individuals, forcing them to serve as slaves, but also even more ruthlessly mistreated and tortured them, killing them and destroying their minds. The brutal violence of their techniques utterly exceeds the bounds of human imagination. This is not just China's shame - it is a shame on all human civilization.

Low-level political organizations, including the village cadre management system and the police security system, were enmeshed in widespread corruption; local officials who were not themselves involved with dirty money and who did not act as direct protection for the slave system just utterly ignored the horrible situation and the appeals of mothers looking for their sons. Their indifferent dereliction of duty showed an absence of even a basic social conscience. This slave system was discovered in 1998 but was not handled as it should have been. Following long-term growth and expansion, it became common practice, part of the chatter, a grand spectacle - and a malevolent footnote to so-called harmonious prosperity.

This is not just a frightening moral and legal crisis - it is, after the great famine and the Cultural Revolution in the mid-20th Century, the third constitutional crisis that the ruling party has encountered. Facing such severe, systemic bad government, the party's ability to rule and its "advanced nature" face unprecedented challenges. This time it is the malignant cancer on low-level organizations that has brought the upper levels such unbearable pain. Like the lyrics in the Peking Opera Su San Carried Off: the entire country has become a "Hongdong County" where there are "no good people." The kiln slavery affair in Shanxi sounds a clear warning: the Hongdong effect in Chinese society is now unstoppable.

After the exposure of the situation, Zhongnanhai was furious. The State Council held emergency sessions, the Shanxi government launched sweeping searches, the underground slaves were rescued, the forces of evil were arrested, corrupt local officials were stripped of their titles, and the provincial governor Yu Youjun apologized to the entire nation. But Beijing did not apologize to China. And the twelve teams that Hongdong County sent out to all corners to apologize look once again to be political junket, tours on the public's dime. All of these actions will no doubt placate the families of the victims and provide an explanation through action to the country and the world, yet they do not touch the root cause of the slave system. That root is none other than today's unitary political structure. The kiln slave incident demonstrates that without constitutional oversight from free citizens, an independent media, and democratic organizations apart from the party, this structure cannot prevent corruption in itself or renew politics. Nor can it maintain "advanced" political ideals. China has no way to avoid the fate of political necrosis.

In the 1980s and 1990s, China missed two successive opportunities for political reform, and the weight on the system becomes heavier by the day. Today, a third opportunity looms. There are manifestly few such chances. If the blood and lives of the slaves can instigate structural renewal and bring political progress to Chinese society, then this is a political treasure to be cherished.

A formless memorial tablet to the slaves has already been erected by the public. Inscribed on it are the heart-rending stories of tens of thousands of slaves. "Hongdong County" has once again become the butt of history's joke, and those evil forces are nailed to the pillar of shame, forever cursed by the people of the world. As I see it, this enormous "public praise" should also be a marker in time for the start of democratic politics. It is a final call to all political elites who possess a conscience. On this memorial, the public will, using its own devices, inscribe a lasting warning to the world -

"Save the children! Save China!"

Then there's this recent blog post, which makes a similar point by purporting to be a transcript of a speech at a high-level "internal meeting":

Comrades, we have been testing out the One County, Two Systems policy for a decade or more, and it has generally been effective. I am quite satisfied. People both inside and outside of the country had opinions - they clamored, hollered, murmured, and acted uncultured - I do not see them as anything hard to overcome. Don't they just want press freedom? But freedom is not absolute. Right now there are people who are satisfied with one country, two systems, and there are people who are not. This is normal. Overall, I am satisfied. This is not just my own opinion - it is the opinion of many senior comrades, and it is the opinion of the entire populace. In the break room just now I chatted with a few reporters. The question came up: should we, on the foundation of One Country, Two Systems, try out One Country, Three Systems or One Country, Four Systems? Some places are historically backward and have a poor foundation - should we try out a slave system? We could put a pilot site in Hongdong County, for example. Why shouldn't we? I say we can. The groundwork for a slave system in Hongdong County is substantial. Reform must be bold, mistakes are not to be feared, errors should be corrected. Who among us does not make mistakes? I myself made a mistake once - the last time I corrected test papers I summed up one student's marks incorrectly, that poor fellow. VOA and the BBC took hold of it and had daily reports, gleefully congratulating each other, but ultimately it wasn't anything extraordinary - doesn't a simple correction solve it? So we should not fear mistakes. We should not be timid and effeminate; we should be strong men. Those who have done great deeds throughout history were all strong men. Qin Shi Huang was one, Emperor Wu was another, and Zhu Yuanzhang another. I could be one too, after a fashion. On a math exam back in high-school, there was one question that everyone answered A, but I persisted in answering B. Ultimately I was proved to be correct. So you must be bold, and do not fear making errors.

The past few days, the illegal brick kiln incident erupted in Hongdong County. The media chattered about it, talking so much that it was as if a great flood, a landslide, and an earthquake came, frightening everyone to no end. Last night, a Shanxi leader gave me a call, weeping and wailing that there was no hope. I say there's nothing that great here. We shouldn't be nervous, we shouldn't panic. This would have come out sooner or later, and sooner is better than later. The sooner it comes out the sooner it can be resolved. Isn't it just showing that our country still has a slave system? I say, here's what we should do. One Country, Three Systems isn't anything that hard. If the subject is socialism, then if we do a slave system in one county, not even amounting to a little finger, what's there to be afraid of? Yesterday we arrested the boss - what was his name? Right, Heng Tinghan. Under the socialist system, this man should be killed, if not 10,000 times then at least 9000. But comrades, we must talk dialectics when evaluating the historical position and contribution of an individual. I have talked on this issue many times in many different places. Someone like Heng Tinghan, under a socialist system, is a criminal. He should be put to death by a thousand cuts. But if we try out a slave system in Hongdong County, then I say he should be a county governor, or if not, he's at least qualified to be a village head. If he really can manage Hongdong County, if he can spur the economy, the I want to send him a letter of congratulations. I am also considering sending him to live among the cannibals in Africa for a few years to learn something from them and come back with a PhD. Who says a slave master can't study for a PhD? I say it's fine.

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There are currently 2 Comments for Political structure and the Shanxi kiln scandal.

Comments on Political structure and the Shanxi kiln scandal

"...without constitutional oversight from free citizens, an independent media, and democratic organizations apart from the party, this structure cannot prevent corruption in itself or renew politics. Nor can it maintain "advanced" political ideals. China has no way to avoid the fate of political necrosis."

Hear, hear!

This ain't over, methinks.

I'm afraid Jiang Zhuzi's 'internal speech' seems to be a spoof or Egao made-up by Zhuzi himself, as he noted that it was a speech delivered by him to the class of a senior cadre study group ;)

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