Family and friends reacted with anger Wednesday after the owner of a kiln operated with slaves who were beaten and forced to work long days was sentenced to nine years in prison even as two aides received far harsher punishment.
Kiln owner Wang Bingbing, the son of a local Communist Party official, was convicted Tuesday of unlawful detention for the use of slave laborers at his brick kiln in Shanxi province.
The supervisor of his plant, Zhao Yanbing, received the death penalty after he was convicted of beating a mentally impaired man to death with a shovel because he wasn’t working hard enough. Foreman Heng Tinghan, found guilty of intentionally injuring workers and illegal detention, received a life sentence.
“We are very angry. This sentence is too lenient,” said Zhang Shanlin, father of a young man so badly beaten and burned that he cannot walk without assistance. “The owner got off too easy. Without him, how could they have enslaved so many people?”
The case, which came to light last month after hundreds of fathers seeking missing children believed to have been sold into slavery pleaded for help on the Internet, exposed the widespread use of slaves at kiln operations in central China.
Tuesday’s sentencing came a week after Beijing executed the country’s top food and drug safety official for taking bribes and approving fake medicines sold at home and abroad.
Worried about the latest scandal’s potential to further tarnish the country’s reputation, officials have cracked down on 7,500 small kilns across north-central China and slapped more than a dozen kiln owners and foremen with jail terms.
“The scandal is a blot on socialist China which we must wipe out,” said Shanxi Provincial Court Vice President Liu Jimin.
Chinese media have reported that as many as 1,000 minors had been kidnapped and sold into slavery in rural kilns. Officials say only about a dozen child laborers had been freed in the recent raids, leading some critics to say that the true extent of the scandal is being covered up.
“You can see the major massaging of statistics,” said Robin Munro, research director at China Labor Bulletin, a watchdog group based in Hong Kong.
An additional 95 mostly lower-level officials have been disciplined for dereliction of duty in the brick kiln slavery case, with penalties such as removal from office and expulsion from the Communist Party.
Officials say the size of the dragnet shows an unprecedented commitment to justice, but critics and victims’ families say it lets bigger fish off the hook.
“These guys are scapegoats,” said Zhang Xiaoying, the mother of a 15-year-old boy who had been enslaved and rescued. She is not related to Zhang Shanlin. “They are hired hands. They were just following orders.”
Victims of Wang’s kiln operation said he relied on his father’s clout and bribed police to ignore abuses.
“It’s inconceivable that slave labor and gross physical abuse on the scale it’s been reported could possibly have gone on without full knowledge of local officials,” said Munro. “My guess is too many officials are involved -- prosecuting them all would be even worse for the government’s image.”
“This is about local protectionism,” Zhang Shanlin said. “The government should make an example of this by striking down hard.”