Wu Si (Âê¥ÊÄù) is a well respected thinker, author and historian in China. The following interview was published on a Chinese news site Red Net on June 29, 2007. Thanks to David Kelly for the translation.
When the Shanxi black kiln incident was exposed by the media, critics rapidly responded, exploring the core issues from different angles. Morally courageous public opinion and forces of reason constitute the most comforting things about the rescue of the kiln slaves. The rescuing forces have now been mobilized, but analysis and reflection on the incident should not cease. Searching for more depth of vision to size up the black kiln affair, we came across Wu Si, the historian and scholar who discovered the “unspoken rules” and the “law of vendetta” from vast historical data. His theory demonstrates regarding today’s black kilns: the gray “unspoken rules” and “laws of vendetta” upheld by the cold-blooded kiln owners and local officials. The fate of the kilns depends on that of the local vendetta order. Contemplating the black kilns, Wu Si proposes a new concept””local orders of tyranny.” It is under such orders of tyranny that black kilns can blossom everywhere.
Nandu Zhoukan: Were you shocked to see the facts disclosed by the Shanxi black brick kiln incident”child labor, the mentally handicapped, corpses, German shepherds, thugs, the village Party Secretary, 95% undisclosed operation licenses, etc.,?
Wu Si: I wasn’t shocked”it can be found in other provinces than Shanxi. The experience of history shows that such things are widespread in China. Moreover, previous solutions and now are basically the same, relying on top-down supervision. I would find it strange if China had no such things. Because neither the core power structure, nor the pyramid structure of responsibility has changed. The exposure of this incident merely reconfirms but my judgment.
Nandu Zhoukan: In historical terms, has this type of incident long been known?
Wu Si: Just to give you a few snippets from my readings of history: In December 1799, the Jiaqing emperor decreed: “Coal mines in the Western Hills easily harbor evil-doers. I hear of thugs there called water foremen who often lure innocent people into the mines, where they are driven cruelly to the point of death.” The emperor ordered military and government bureaus to send a mission to look into it, and “if such thugs are found, make an investigative report on the spot, and punish them according to the law.”
So a provincial governor named Lu led a troop of militia which “traversed several kilns, and found coal miners imprisoned in all the lodgings who all came flying out with a great cry.” According to the record, the rescued coal miners “were all cheering and applauding.” The coal mines of the Western Hills lie in today’s Mentougou District of the Beijing municipal region.
Such things happened in the Qianlong [1736 -1796] as well as the Jiaqing era [1796 -1821]: “Mentougou is at Wanping in the Western Hills. The coal used in Beijing is produced there in over 200 coal mines. The operators send people a few miles away to swindle poor folk into working the mines. At night they are driven into guohuo, which are bare lodgings. They set spikes in high drystone walls, so no one can cross. The wages are enough to pay for two meals per day, with nothing left over.” Such mines had a special name: “closed-door pits [guanmen yao].”
From the Qing Dynasty to the Republic these problems were never completely cleared up, but kept coming back. Nor were they limited to the geographical area of Beijing’s Mentougou, they happened in Leiyang County in Hunan, Mi and Lushan counties in Henan, and in Shaanxi as well. In Hunan, local kiln owner often employed thugs as labour contractors, responsible for work on the water wheels [used to pump water from the mines], which was known as “water handling.”
In a report written in the Guangxu period [1875-1911], a local official in Hunan describes it thus: “Water handling is generally undertaken by local thugs who are utterly vicious. They round up local riff-raff… to force (poor people) into slavery in the pits.” “People are baselessly duped, travelers kidnapped, etc. Water handlers have earthen shelters, dark and deep, outside which they erect wooden fencing with just a hole left facing the pit with a door for going in and out. The water handlers who operate them call it ‘building a drum.’ The duped and kidnapped people imprisoned in the drum are called ‘water toads.’ All are stripped naked and made to drive the water wheels endlessly by day and night regardless of cold and hunger. If they tire slightly, their backs are whipped. If they try to escape, their feet are stabbed. Due to the miserable conditions and harsh labor in the pit, the weak succumb and die after half a month. Within a few months even the strong have ruined feet and swollen bellies. No rest is allowed, no medicine is given, they sit and watch each other die.”
Interest relations of local tyranny
Nandu Zhoukan: What led to such a problem? Why did repeated prohibitions fail to stop it?
Wu Si: The Qing dynasty legislated to prohibit it. In 1822, after reconsideration in Shuntianfu [Beijing], the Ministry of Punishment agreed, the court approved promulgation of the Regul at ions for Handling Pits and Workers’ Dwellings, which prohibited the creation of “closed kilns.” “The spiked walls they had built were torn down.” The following laws were also set down: “Sentence on leaders and followers of those who dupe honest people, forcing them into pits and holding them against their will, will be passed as for murderous assailants. Kiln operators, who knew the situation and condoned it, will be punished as for guilty parties who knew and concealed it.”
But the law was unreliable. At the time, Minister of Punishment Nayancheng [1763-1833]  worried: “I fear the law will slacken with the passage of time and become purely nominal,” and that “unworthy junior officials will have to follow the observances of the coal mines, and after long practice vigilance will decline.” Why did these problems stage a comeback despite prohibition? Nayancheng made it clear that the prime reason was that after long practice “vigilance would decline.”
This is also connected to the age old “local orders of tyranny” in China’s regional history. There have been many local territories in Chinese history that had their own rules in spite of the regulations of the Party or State. Corresponding to what officialdom calls the unspoken rules are what these gangs call “transverse rules.” I call this the “local order of tyranny” of the region. How are these territories formed? If everything is in order and the government administers properly, they cannot form. For example, local territories can be seen in the Shanxi black kilns. Who are the beneficiaries from these local tyrannies? We may analysis this in terms of interest relations, and from the costs and benefits.
The pit owners are certainly beneficiaries in the first instance. Moreover we see from the news media exposure, with the money they get the kiln owners first of all bribe officials and then collaborate upwardly with different departments and levels. Those who drag people into the dwellings also benefit, thus forming a chain of interests. Rich, influential and powerful people and those with who control information and access are all beneficiaries. The only victims are the slave workers. To those preserving this order, as long as the benefits outweighed the cost, the order can remain intact, be preserved or even expanded. And as for the local officials their benefits are very clear as well, but what are the risks? The risk is of angering their superiors. They have many ways of dealing with this risk. The first is concealment.
Officials failed to report or deal with it; they pretended not to see, or deliberately neglected it. This was waging information war. Next was to wage procedural war”delaying, delegating, neglecting, obstructing, creating difficulties, opposing instructions and silencing opponents. The reporter from Henan TV in fact said that the greatest resistance in his investigations came from the local government of Shanxi. Some departments even secretly sold rescued people back to the bosses. But they cannot withstand anger of the higher levels, and losing their posts is a loss in terms of their benefits. But they have methods of fending off threats with mobile warfare; did not some officials sit playing cards instead of going down to investigate?
The victims of local tyranny are its resolute opponents. There is no benefit, only disgrace, for the higher levels. The Centre met again after this incident, gave further instructions to bring local officials to account. The slaves are the greatest victims of the local tyrants. They should be its most powerful opponents, but how high is the cost of opposition for a slave worker, how bad the bargain? In this order, they are not united, or have they any chance to unite: they are fragmented, with no unions or channels of information, and are faced by a single line of rights. This is not to say they can’t find the local government: they can find the court; they can find representatives; likewise the media, all of which are lines offering a solution. The solution of this case was first triggered by the media, and then aroused the fury of the higher levels. Fortunately Fu Zhenzhong was a reporter with Henan Television, who could not be brought into line by the tyranny; if he’d been from Shanxi, I am afraid that he would have become the second Gao Qinrong [who was imprisoned from1998 to 2006 for reporting on corruption].
Nandu Zhoukan: In China’s current administrative framework, the village, particularly administrative organizations in the administrative village, still exists. There is no power vacuum there, but the brick kilns cases have revealed that grass-roots political power provided an umbrella for them, and colluded with the kiln owners to ignore the State’s laws on human rights.
Wu Si: How is political power at the grassroots level generated? By election or appointment? Under the current grassroots framework, the mayor and the village Party secretary are both appointed. The village secretary who was dismissed, Wang Dongji, was actually a ringleader. Of course, it’s difficult to determine what connection the emergence of this case has with current grass-roots political power. Elections may not solve the problem, but the problem is very likely caused by the non-elected [standing of the officials]. From media reports, the village residents said this secretary was a tyrant, who would probably not be elected. He was also a delegate to the county People’s Congress, but was he elected to this position? This is also unclear.
Second, democracy may not be able to solve the problem of interest groups. This village is internally democratic, but the villager residents would not necessarily safeguard the interests of migrant workers. One cannot simply look to the conscience of voters; it too may not be reliable.
Nandu Zhoukan: What can be done to break the order of tyranny formed by these linked interests?
Wu Si: to protect the interests of workers, the most fundamental thing is to rely on the victims themselves. First reduce the cost of their access to information. Television, print media and the internet all lower these costs. The victims’ families could on this occasion organize them selves, and the contribution of the Tianya network shouldn’t be forgotten. Although compared to the past the cost of access to information has declined, but there is still or a gap with the ideal state. Secondly, the cost of victims’ lawsuits must be reduced. A lawyer counted the costs workers’ claiming their pay, if the 100 billion yuan of wages owed migrant workers were to be claimed through the laws of the land; it would cost 300 billion yuan. Not to take this path would be to allow the victims to organize themselves, to encourage them, and could speed up the flow of information by reducing its costs as well. Or the development could be encouraged of NGOs and human rights organizations, which are designed to protect vulnerable groups; getting them to organize is an effective mode of opposition to the powerful.
“If the demons grow a metre so does the dao.” This order can be broken by reducing its opposition force. This is the democratic way”you can to vote the thugs out. You could also separate powers, instead of one man in control of everything, have an independent discipline inspection bureau, independent judiciary and legislature so that they check each other’s power.
Of course, the most important thing is to carry out structural reform and improve the people’s power of oversight over the government. If the village level can be elected, the town can be elected, although it was outsiders who were enslaved, but for the sake of votes, the affair could be thrashed out in public, causing loss of face to the local officials and making them step down. Meanwhile, give some leeway to muckrakers by giving the news media greater freedom. If Fu Zhenzhong were to get this year’s Yangtze River Prize for Journalism, China News Awards that would be the right way.
Only in this way can we fundamentally change the “order of local tyranny,” legal commitments will not only be on paper, and genuine civil society can be established. The approach to solving such an order that is the same as in the past is for the higher levels to count on top-down accountability mechanisms when they lose their temper. This way, things can only be solved momentarily or partially, rather than comprehensively and fundamentally.
Nandu Zhoukan: In fact this case only lead to high-level attention after being given out by the media, then followed up; with public power intervention, prompt action was taken, leading to accountability and leaders apologizing, and thus opening a national operation to “wipe out turpitude.” How do you view the media’s performance through this whole process?
Wu Si: compared to previous such cases, from exposure of the problem to solving it, the media’s performance may be one of the very few bright spots; the breakthrough was here. Indeed, the media to some extent shared the cost of confronting the “order of local tyranny” with the victims and their families and became an alternative approach.
Both capital and power are greedy
Nandu Zhoukan: There is a view that blame for the cases occurring lies with the greed of capital, they never used to occur before China’s reform and opening. How do you view this?
Wu Si: There’s no doubt about the greed of capital. Capital is greedy, as is power. Anyone can be greedy, workers and peasants included. Workers greed is to get more money for working less. Everyone is like this: the question is how to constrain it. You may expect them to practice self-restraint, or rely on curbing them with institutions. Are these black kiln owners capitalists? No, they resemble slave masters whose greedy hope is that the slaves eat less and work more. In regard to the greed of capital, the main constraint comes from unions. If they employ workers illegally and commit offences, they should be curbed by government, by the police. If the police do not act, curbing power should be considered.
Nandu Zhoukan: The illegal brick kiln case complies with the logic of power, but also conforms to your “Law of Vendetta.” As well as the slave’s labor, the kiln owners even possess their bodies. But to widen this somewhat, this can be called one extreme of the continuous spectrum of labor relations in China. In the media coverage, we may often see forced labor, body searches, poor working environments, excessive overtime, non-payment of wages and the like. Some people attribute these phenomena to “problems development,” or the “inevitable restructuring costs” of China’s progress towards modernization. How would you evaluate this theory of “development cost”?
Wu Si: How can this be “the cost of development””it’s precisely the manifestation of “non-development.” Things of 200 years ago have returned, is this “development”? “Development” is essentially to extend the citizen’s rights; development is first and foremost a development of rights.
The development China’s agriculture was firstly an outcome of the development of the rights of the peasantry, household contracting meant that peasants could control the fruits of their labor, they were permitted to travel to other places to work, allowed to go to distant places to sell their goods; these rights were long since “handed over.” Industry is the same, everything was originally state-owned, and now individuals can open factories, and capitalists receive their due rights, so industrial develops. Now workers are being duped, in labour relations rights are often eroded, what kind of development is this?
Nandu Zhoukan: In the game between employers and employees, the facts have abundantly shown that atomized individuals often find it hard to confront powerful employers. In your view, what role should trade unions play today? There is an argument that China is still at the bottom of the current global profit chain: if unions really have bargaining power with employers, it must lead to China’s labor costs rising and thus losing competitiveness in the global market, dealing a fatal blow to the Chinese economy.
Wu Si: Last year I specifically wrote an article in which I worked out the wage gap between unionised and non-unionised workers in the Zaozhuang mine in the Republican period. Before the union, workers were severely exploited, while four or five years afterwards, their net wage were 32% better. A trade union is a form of political power which has a monetary value: it can be used as food to eat”equal in value to 32% of their original pay. A second issue is whether the boss will suffer; will profits go down if wages rise? In the Zaozhuang mine, they didn’t go down.
I asked two bosses the same question, if in five years, your company’s staff salary were to rise 30% how would your company be, would it lost competitiveness in the international markets? They said that China’s international market competitive advantage, especially its cost advantages, was less than 1.5 percentage points. China relies on its labor cost advantage to dump products worldwide, which displeases the workers of other countries, and has even become an issue of the international order.
I reckoned up one account, assuming that China currently has a billion migrant workers; if their wages were increased by 32% the benefit delivered to their entire families would be five times that yielded by rescinding the agricultural tax. And this money would be turned into purchasing power: one of China’s current problems is overproduction. Even the competitiveness in foreign markets were weakened, the benefits of stimulating domestic consumption would make up for it.