China is now investigating whether hundreds, perhaps thousands, of poor children of the Yi ethnic minority group in Liangshan were lured or even kidnapped to work in factories that are increasingly desperate for the kind of cheap labor that powered China to prosperity over the past two decades.
Labor recruiters — government investigators and some local residents portray them as con men — have connected two radically different parts of China’s turbulent society. They have brought together ethnic minorities untouched by economic development in their mountainous isolation, and factory owners in the prime export manufacturing zones of southern Guangdong Province, near Hong Kong.
Exporters have struggled to adjust to soaring inflation, a fast-rising currency and, with some irony, stricter enforcement of labor laws that make it harder to hire regular workers on a seasonal basis. Using child workers from a remote region, many of whom cannot even speak Mandarin, the country’s main national dialect, have provided a temporary, albeit illegal, solution.