Scholarship and education

Wu Si on the intractable problem of forced labor


Wu Si (吴思) is the author of the highly influential history books Hidden Rules (潜规则) and The Principle of Blood Payment (血酬定律). He also serves as vice-president of Yanhuang Chunqiu magazine (炎黄春秋, aka Chinese Chronicles), which has been on a reformist bent this year.

In an interview published in this week's Southern Metropolis Weekly (Life edition), Wu reflects on the Shanxi brick kiln scandal in the context of the history of forced labor in China over the past few centuries, as well as how it relates to China's capitalist reforms.

Wu Si: The illegal kiln affair and the local tyrant system

by Chen Jianli / SMW

After the media exposed the Shanxi kiln affair, there was a swift reaction from critics, who went after the core issue from different perspectives. The ethical bravery and rational power of public opinion became a welcome bright spot amid the process of rescuing the kiln slaves. Today, aid has been mobilized, but the analysis and contemplation of the situation should not halt yet. We have been searching for a deeper vision with which to evaluate the illegal kiln affair, and we found Mr. Wu Si. This student of history, who discovered amid the voluminous historical record "unwritten rules" and a "principle of blood payment," has had his theories verified by the illegal kilns: do not those cold-blooded, black-hearted kiln-masters and local officials believe in none other than grey "unwritten rules" and a blood-drenched "principle of blood payment"? The final termination of illegal kilns depends on the termination of the local blood payment system. Wu Si has a new concept to apply to the illegal kiln affair - the local tyrant system. And it is under the local tyrant system that illegal kilns spring up all over.

China has had illegal mines since ancient times

Southern Metropolis Weekly: Looking at the information revealed in the Shanxi illegal brick kilns affair - child labor, the mentally disabled, corpses, wolfhounds, thugs, the town's party secretary, and the 95% unlicensed rate - were you surprised?
Wu Si: I wasn't surprised. These things aren't unique to Shanxi. Other provinces may have them as well, and history shows that this sort of thing was prevalent throughout China. In addition, the solutions of the past were basically the same as those today - they rely on supervision of the subordinates by their superiors. If China did not have this sort of thing, then I'd find it strange. Because the core power structure has not changed: it is still an upwardly-responsible pyramid. The exposure of this incident just further corroborates my argument.

SMW: So looking at history we can see that this type of thing has been around for a while?
Wu: I'll read for you a few passages that I've copied down. In the twelfth month of the fourth year of Jiaqing (1799), Jiaqing issued an edict: "Xishan's coal-pits are most vulnerable to harboring treachery. We have heard that there is a bandit in that place named 'Water Foreman' who coaxes common people into the pits and flogs them so ruthlessly that they die." The emperor commanded the Shunyi Magistrate: "If there is such a ruffian, then find him, seize him, and prepare a memorial so that his crimes may be punished according to the law."

So a magistrate named Lu led a contingent "through many pits, thunderously liberating all of the miners imprisoned in the tiny dorms." And they dismantled all of the coalpits and dorms. The records state that the miners who were rescued "all cheered and put their hands to their foreheads." The Xishan coalpits were where Mentougou is today.

This type of thing did not only occur in the Jiaqing era - it also happened under Qianlong. "Mentougou is in Xishan, Wanping. All of the coal used in the capital is produced there. There are more than 200 coalpits. The mine owners sent people hundreds of miles away to deceive poor people to dig coal in the mines. At night they are imprisoned in dorms (锅伙) - places providing food and shelter. Piled stones form high walls topped with thorns so no one can get over. Wages are enough for two meals with nothing extra." There is a special name for this sort of mine - a "closed-door pit" (关门窑).

From the Qing to the Republic, these problems never found a total solution but rather came back over and over. And they were not limited to Beijing's Mentougou; these things also happened in Leiyangxian in Hunan, Mixian in Henan, Lushanxian in Shandong, and in Shaanxi Province. In Hunan, pit-bosses hired local ruffians as overseers in charge of shipping water - they were called "water shippers" (水承行).

During Guangxu's reign, one local official in Hunan made a report containing this description: "Water-shippers are mostly local scoundrels, vicious and violent, and they collude with local gangsters to force [the poor] to sell themselves into the pits." "...they are ordered to take turns carting water day and night with no rest, without sympathy for hunger or cold. If they flag just a bit, they are whipped on their shoulders. If they try to flee, their foot is stabbed with a knife. The pits are dark, cold, and coarse. The work is extraordinarily harsh. Thus the weak always meet their deaths in half a month. Before several months are out, the able-bodied find their feet mangled and their bellies distended. Rest is not allowed, medicine is not given, and idlers are killed."

Advantages and disadvantages in the local tyrant system

SMW: So what brings about this sort of problem, and why is it so hard to stop?
Wu Si: The Qing enacted laws to ban it. In the second year of Daoguang (1822), after review by Shunyi Prefecture and agreement by the Bureau of Punishments, the court ratified and promulgated the Regulations on Handling Coal Dorms, banning the establishment of "closed" rooms. "All thorn-topped walls are to be demolished." In addition, the following provision was put into place: "Those who deceive common people, force them into the pits, and prevent them from escaping shall be dealt with under the regulations for thugs, separately for the boss and his underlings. Collaborators and those who knew of the pits shall be punished under the regulations for harboring criminals."

But the law was unreliable. At the time, the Minister at the Bureau of Punishments, Nayancheng, worried: "I fear that time brings laziness"; moreover, "Unworthy licentiates accept favors from the pits, hence they are lax in their actions." Why do these problems survive repeated bans, recurring again and again? Nayancheng put it very clearly - lax enforcement is the number one reason.

At the same time, this is related to China's historical "local tyrant system" (地霸秩序). Throughout China's history, local domains have cropped up, one after another. Though party discipline and national law may have rules, these local domains keep their own rules, similar to what officials call "hidden rules," or what the underworld calls "perverse rules." I call them the "local tyrant system." How are these domains formed? If everything works smoothly, and the government works as it should, then these local domains cannot form. For example, the illegal kilns in Shanxi could be thought of as a local domain. Who benefits from this local tyrant system? We can look at the advantage-disadvantage relationship and analyze it from a cost-benefit standpoint.

The kiln owners are definitely the first beneficiaries. And from what the media has exposed, when the mine owners got their money, they first bought off the officials and then roped in different departments at different levels. The people who were roped in also benefited, forming an interest chain. Those with money, those with influence, those with power, and those who controlled the flow of information were all beneficiaries. Only one victim - the enslaved workers. For those who protected this system, so long as the profit was greater than the cost, the system could be established, sustained, and enlarged.

Next, let's look at the officials: their benefit is also obvious. But what about their risk? Risk is present in the anger of their superiors. Officials have many ways of combating risk. One is concealment. The officials do not pass reports up, they do not take care of anything, they pretend like they see nothing, they are lax in enforcement - this is information warfare. Another is organizational warfare. They delay, pass the buck, overlook, obstruct, cause trouble, oppose all kinds of instructions, suppress nay-sayers. Didn't the reporter from Hunan TV say that the greatest obstacle in his investigation came from the local government in Shanxi? Some government agencies even took the people he had rescued and quietly sold them back to the boss. But they cannot continue to resist the anger of their superiors - is losing a position for that pittance of profit worth it? But they have ways of opposing a mobile war as well - weren't some officials playing cards in their office when they should have been out searching?

The victims of the local tyrant system are the ones consistently opposed to it. Those upper-level officials reap no benefits from the system - they only lose face. After these matters came out, the central government held meetings and gave instructions to look into the local officials responsible. The slave laborers were the biggest victims of the local tyrant system; they should be the ones most strongly opposed. But look at the cost of opposition. Under this system, they are are not united, or may not even be able to unite. They are scattered and isolated with no labor organizations and no information channels while they face a straight line of power. So if going to the local government doesn't work, they go to the courts. If the courts don't work, they go to their representative. If the representative doesn't work, they they go to the media. There's a chance for a solution at every point. The resolution in this case was first touched off by the media, and only later was the anger of the higher-ups set off. Fortunately, Fu Zhenzhong was a reporter with Hunan TV, so this system had no hold over him. If he was from Shanxi, then I'm afraid Fu Zhenzhong would have become a second Gao Qinrong.

SMW: In China's current administrative framework, administrative organizations in rural areas, particularly at the town level, still exist; there is no power vacuum in the countryside. But the illegal brick kiln affair exposed the fact that low-level political organs took on the role of sheltering the kiln owners, conspiring with them and ignoring human rights and national law.
Wu: How is low-level political power formed? Is it elected or is it appointed? In the current low-level framework, a village head is elected, and a village party secretary is appointed. Wang Dongji, the secretary who was dismissed from office, was actually the first in command. Of course, it's still hard to say what connection this affair has with building low-level political organs. You can't say that popular elections will solve this problem, but it is highly likely that the absence of popular elections created this problem. As reported in the media, the village head said that this party secretary was high-handed; if there were public elections, he probably would not be elected. He is still a county representative. Was this people's representative elected? It's not clear.

Secondly, democracy will not necessarily resolve the problem of interest groups. A village may have internal democracy, but the villagers may not protect the interests of laborers from the outside. You cannot always look to the conscience of the electorate; their conscience is not necessarily reliable.

SMW: How can the local tyrant system formed from this interest chain be broken up?
Wu: Workers' interests must be protected. Fundamentally, this rests on the victims themselves. First, their cost of obtaining information must be lowered - television, print media, and the Internet lower the costs of information. The contribution of Tianya to fact that the victims' families were able to organize should not be ignored. Though the cost of obtaining information has fallen compared to the past, it is still far from ideal. Next, the cost of victims' lawsuits must drop. A lawyer once did some calculations on migrant workers seeking back wages and found that for the migrant workers throughout the country to use the law to get back 100 billion yuan owed to them, 300 billion would have to be spent. Victims could be permitted to organize to avoid going the lawsuit route. This would give them courage, and it would speed the flow of information, thereby reducing costs. Or the development of NGOs and organizations that protect people's rights could be encouraged. These organizations protect the rights of vulnerable groups; allowing them to organize is an effective means of opposing the powerful.

When evil rises, good rises higher - this system can be broken through reducing the strength of the opposition. The method is democracy - throw the crooks out by casting votes. And separation of powers, too, so that one individual can no longer mislead the public. An independent disciplinary department, an independent judiciary, an independent legislature - let the powers check each other internally.

Of course, what's most important is to carry out reforms on the system - enhance the people's power of government oversight. If the village level can have elections, then the town can have elections. Although outsiders are made slaves, when elections are held, these things will come to light, shaming the local officials, sending them out of office. At the same time, the news media should be given more freedom, make things good for the muckrackers. If Fu Zhenzhong wins the Changjiang Journalism Prize this year, then things are on the right road.

Only in this way can the local tyrant system be destroyed at the root. Only when the law's promises are not just on paper can true civil society be established. When the solution for this kind of problem is the same as in the past - fury from the upper levels and a top-down accountability mechanism - it will only be a temporary or partial solution rather than an complete, fundamental solution.

SMW: This incident was actually disclosed by the media, which then pushed it forward, and only later did it attract upper-level attention. Then public power intervened and acted swiftly until the officials who were accountable apologized. Then a nation-wide "anti-corruption campaign" was launched. What do you think of the media's overall performance during the whole process?
Wu: Compared to similar incidents in the past, the media's performance was one of the few bright points from the exposure until the resolution. This was the breakthrough point. In fact, to a certain degree the media shared the victim's and their families' cost of opposing the local tyrant system, becoming an alternative method.

SMW: There's a view that this incident can be blamed on capitalist greed, that it would not have occurred in China before the reform and opening up. What do you think of this viewpoint?
Wu: Capitalist greed is there, no doubt about it. Capital is greedy, power is also greedy. Everyone is greedy - workers and peasants are greedy. Workers' greed is to get more money for less work. Everyone is like this; the question is how to restrain it. Do you instruct me to practice self-restraint, or do you rely on the system for restraint. Were these kiln-owners capitalists? No, they had become like slave-owners. Their greed was the desire that their slave workers would eat less and work more. Concerning capitalist greed, the most important restraint is a labor union. If these capitalists use illegal labor, they commit a crime, so the restraint should come from the government, from the police. If the police are derelict in their duties, then you have to think about restrictions on power.

"Environmental pollution is a necessary stage of economic development," says the man with a paper labeled "scientific development concept" in his pocket. (cartoon from Xiang Chun / Southern Weekly)

SMW: The illegal brick kiln affair is in complete accordance with the logic of power, as well as with your own principle of blood payment. The kiln owners, in addition to making use of the labor of their slave workers, even took possession of their bodies. But opening this up a bit, one could say that this is one extreme of a continuous spectrum of the relationship between labor and capital in China. In the media, we have often seen reports of forced labor, body searches, abominable working environments, excessive hours, short wages, and so forth. Some have called these phenomena "problems in the course of development," and "the inevitable cost of transition" as China moves toward modernization. What is your evaluation of the "price of progress" view?
Wu: How could it be the "price of progress"? This is precisely an expression of "non-progress". A recurrence of the events of two centuries ago - is this "progress"?

The essence of "progress" is an expansion of the rights of every citizen, development is above all a development of rights. China's agricultural development was first of all the result of the development of peasants' rights - land assigned for each household. Farmers controlling the fruits of their own labor, farmers permitted to travel elsewhere to work, farmers permitted to transport goods long distances - in the past, these rights were "turned in." It was the same for industry - once it belonged to the state, but now individuals can run factories, capitalists have gained the rights they ought to have, so industry can develop. Workers are upset now because in the relationship between labor and capital their rights are often encroached upon. What kind of progress is this?

SMW: In the game between the side of capital and the side of labor, it has been made clear time and again that individual always find it difficult to oppose the powerful capital side. In your view, how should the function of current work unions be brought into place? There is once voice that says that in today's global profit chains, China is still at one end; if labor unions really have the ability to bargain with capital, then this will spur an increase in the cost of labor in China, thus forfeiting competitiveness in the world market. This would be a mortal blow to the Chinese economy.
Wu: Last year I wrote an article that calculated the wage difference between Zaozhuang coal mines with and without a labor union. Before the labor union came, the workers were exploited terribly. Five years after the union arrived, workers' wages had risen 32%. Labor unions are one form of political power, and political power is worth money. It can be eaten - it was worth 32% of their former wages. The second question is whether the boss suffered after the wages were raised. Did profits drop? In those Zaozhuang mines, profits did not drop.

I've asked two bosses what would happen to their companies if, in the next five years, their employees' wages were to rise 30%. Would they forfeit market competitiveness? They said that the competitive edge that China has in the world market, particularly its cost advantage, is not just a point or two. Today, Chinese products can be dumped on the world because of that labor cost advantage. This upsets workers in other countries, and has even caused problems to international order.

I've calculated that if China were to increase the salary of its 100 million migrant workers by 32%, this would bring to their families benefits worth 5 times what canceling the agriculture tax brought. This money would be transformed into spending power. One problem China has today is overproduction. Even if its competitiveness on the world market is weakened, the benefits of spurring domestic consumption are enough to make up for it.

Note 1: Your translator is not particularly well-versed in Qing-dynasty labor issues. Corrections and clarifications are welcome.
Note 2: (2007.07.04) There is another translation on CDT courtesy of David Kelly.

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There are currently 3 Comments for Wu Si on the intractable problem of forced labor.

Comments on Wu Si on the intractable problem of forced labor


Thanks for this excellent post and translation. Two quotes in particular caught my attention:

"The solutions of the past were basically the same as those today - they rely on supervision of the subordinates by their superiors. If China did not have this sort of thing, then I'd find it strange. Because the core power structure has not changed: it is still an upwardly-responsible pyramid."


"When evil rises, good rises higher - this system can be broken through reducing the strength of the opposition. The method is democracy - throw the crooks out by casting votes. And separation of powers, too, so that one individual can no longer mislead the public. An independent disciplinary department, an independent judiciary, an independent legislature - let the powers check each other internally."

I think that the PRC leadership, in ways not wholly unfamiliar to their late-Qing predecessors, is discovering that fixing the problem of corruption and the dissonances between center and local might require politically unpalatable reforms. Clearly, the corruption that allows these sorts of practices to continue is not simply going to go away by itself without systemic changes. Kudos to Professor Wu for raising some important issues and for using sound history in support of those issues.

This is one very valuable article.

"democracy will not necessarily resolve the problem of interest groups. A village may have internal democracy, but the villagers may not protect the interests of laborers from the outside. You cannot always look to the conscience of the electorate; their conscience is not necessarily reliable."

Wu indicated that an one-person-one-vote type of democracy would not necessarily resolve the problem of local-tyrant-system in China. It has to be subordinated by a civil society build-up, as certain party elites high-up might also have perceived of.

However, no matter how eagarly the hu-wen duo want to foster an incremental political transition, if it is still conditioned by a one-party-rule principle, China will still be a pseudo-socialist society with chinese characteristics.

thanks for the translation.
great article.

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