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2019-01-21 10:38:46

Four people in central China’s Hunan province have been apprehended by police on suspicion of forcing at least 10 people — most of whom are mentally or physically disabled — into years of unpaid labor, Sixth Tone’s sister publication The Paper reported Saturday.

The suspects — three from the household of a man surnamed Xiang plus a supervisor hired by the family — were arrested in November by police in Baojing, a county in Hunan’s northwest. In July of last year, a worker escaped from the family and told police of the alleged abuses he had suffered there. In mid-November, police raided the property and rescued 10 people who were being held captive in a dingy barn and forced to work without pay. The police did not disclose Xiang’s full name, citing the ongoing investigation.

The workers, who police say hail from several provinces including Heilongjiang in the northeast and Yunnan in the southwest, had been lured to Xiang’s farm in Hunan after he promised to pay them a fair wage. The escaped worker, a 45-year-old man surnamed Long with a mild mental disability, told police that he had met Xiang in the summer of 2010 while he was collecting recyclables on the street. According to Long, Xiang had offered him 300 yuan (then $44) per month to work on his family’s farm. In the years since, Long says he lost contact with his family, who live in a county about 40 minutes’ drive from Baojing: Their attempts to find him were all in vain.

At Xiang’s farm, Long and the other workers were forced to tend the cattle, till the land, and dig mines during the day. In the evening, they were confined in a barn, where they slept on straw and dirty quilts scattered on the ground. Their two daily meals consisted of sweet potatoes. Instead of the wages Xiang had promised, Long said they didn’t receive so much as a cent for their hard labor. Moreover, whenever the workers showed signs of disobedience, Long said that Xiang, his wife, his teenage son, or the supervisor would beat them.

The dirty, hay-filled barn where the captive workers slept at night in Baojing County, Hunan province, 2018. From the Baojing police

The dirty, hay-filled barn where the captive workers slept at night in Baojing County, Hunan province, 2018. From the Baojing police

In a video recorded by police when they visited Xiang’s property as part of an undercover investigation, the 10 workers are seen sitting on the ground removing kernels from ears of corn. When officers ask them where they come from, the responses they receive are garbled and unintelligible. “When I asked the Xiang family about the workers’ identities, they said they were running a charity that helps the mentally disabled out of humanitarian aid,” Zhang Changfeng, the head of Baojing’s public security bureau, told The Paper.

The police told The Paper that the abuse had gone unreported for years because Xiang’s neighbors were afraid of him and the workers did not have the wherewithal to seek help. Following their rescue, the workers are staying at a local shelter that provides temporary housing. The four suspects, meanwhile, are being held by police, pending a formal arrest order from the local prosecutor.

According to China’s Criminal Law, people found guilty of using violence or intimidation, or restricting personal freedom, as a means of compelling others to work may be sentenced to up to three years in prison — or up to 10 years in serious cases.

In December, 13 people in Heilongjiang and Jilin, two provinces in northeastern China, were sentenced to between one and six years each for forcing 52 people into labor. As with the Baojing case, many of the victims are mentally or physically disabled. They had been sent to work at construction sites, tree farms, and factories without payment. According to the rescued workers, two individuals had died during their captivity.

When the court judgment document was made public in early January, it sparked backlash from people who thought the sentences were too lenient for the crimes committed. “The defendants will be deprived of their freedom for around the same amount of time they deprived the freedom of others, or even less,” Wu Yuanzhong, an expert on legal affairs, wrote in a commentary published Saturday by The Beijing News. Wu implored the court to hold a retrial, adding that illegal detention — which carries a minimum of ten years’ imprisonment — should be included among the charges.

Editor: David Paulk.

(Header image: VCG)