The History of the Illegal Brick Kiln in Hongdong

(Southern Weekend)  An Investigation of the History of the Illegal Brick Mine in Hongdong County.  By Zhu Hongjun (朱红军).  June 21, 2007.

[in translation]

This small brick kiln was struggling for profits.  How did it become "a hell on earth" in just over one year's time?

How did a village party secretary who had been a party member for 32 years become the "protective umbrella" for this illegal brick kiln?

For 18 months, various departments made frequent visits.  How come they looked but saw nothing?

After a three-week-long "storm," this nationally famous illegal brick kiln is nothing but rubble now.  The sixteen entrances into the kiln have been sealed and the ditch where the body was found had been filled up.  On May 27, 2007, the Shanxi province, Hongdong county police was searching for explosives at Wang Bingbing's brick kiln in Caosheng village, Guangshengsi town and they accidentally uncovered a murder case.  Along the way, they rescued 31 "indentured workers" who had been imprisoned and treated inhumanely.  The rescued victims told about the horrible stories of the torture, with the worst being the Kansu man Liu Bao who was buried alive.

On June 14, four Politburo standing committee members including Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao issued an important directive about the issue of the illegal brick kilns in Shanxi.  At the time, this case drew national attention.  In Shanxi, the authorities began a large-scale campaigna across the province to "stop the illegal kiln owners and rescue the kidnapped migrant workers."  Within several days, 351 kidnapped migrant workers were rescued.

But what kind of brick kiln was the one in Hongdong?  How did it become "a hell on earth"?

Like numerous illegal brick kilns, Wang Bingbing's brick kiln was located on a desolate hillside.  This one is located outside Caosheng village.  The Santiaogou villager named Duan lives a short distance away from the kiln, but he has never been there -- the guard dogs were intimidating.  The kiln must be busily active because the sound of machine began at 5am each morning and the lights were still shining brightly at 10pm.

According to the investigation by the Southern Weekend reporter, this brick kiln was established in mid-2003 and it can only be described as a small- or medium-sized kiln in the local area.

"Actually, the kiln did not make a lot of money for the first two years.  It could only produce a million bricks per year," said Zhang Mei, who is the wife of the kiln owner Wang Bingbing.

This can be seen by the decorations inside the home of Wang Bingbing, for it looked no different than that of their neighbors.  Zhang Mei showed the reporter the loan document for money required to purchase equipment -- the amount was around 50,000 yuan.  This debt was made in the names of Wang Bingbing, his father Wang Dongji, his younger brother Wang Jiangjiang and two other acquaintances.

For the first two years, the results were not good.  The direct reasons were the hiring of local workers and the method of production.  "At thirteen yuan per day, you can only hire old and weak women."  Zhang Mei said, "When it rains, you can't get anyone to work.  You can only watch the brick moulds get ruined by the water."

There are not a lot of village enterprises in Caosheng village, so most of the able-bodied young people go outside to find work, or else they dig coal in the nearby coal mines.  The brick kiln work requires physical strength, but the wages are far less than coal mining.  That is why very few young people are willing to do this work.

The local government disclosed that there are 93 brick kilns in Hongdong county, of which 95% have no legal permits.  Our reporters spoke to many brick kiln owners and learned that the sticky earth material is practically free and so labor costs account for most of the operating expenses.  Therefore, "you must work on the labor costs if you want to increase profits."

This was the direct reason of how the kiln owner Wang Bingbing and the Henan subcontractor Heng Tinghan got together.  The date can be traced back to the time when the brick kiln first stated.  Zhang Mei recalled that the two of them got acquainted when Wang Bingbing was trying to get equipment repaired in Yuncheng.  Heng expressed his willingness to become the subcontractor.  They stayed in contact for two years, but they could not reach agreement on the price.

In February 2006, "the subcontracting agreement" was finally reached.  Henan workers who wanted to make money began to arrive at the brick kiln.  From there on, business improved at the brick kiln.  According to the recollection of the runaway youth Zhang Yumin, demand exceeded supply at the brick kiln and they were producing 30,000 bricks per day.  This was a formidable quantity.  So the workers began to work overtime until at the end, the workers had to bring out the bricks before they were sufficiently cooled down inside the kilns.

The family of Wang Bingbing produced documents to show that Wang Bingbing gave 110,000 yuan or so in wages to the subcontractor in 2006.  For a team of 31 people, the average monthly wages was only 300 yuan or so if they received their full pay.  Besides, the subcontractor kept most of the money anyway.

This remarkably low subcontractor's agreement implied that there must be something special about the type of workers that would be hired.  However, the kiln owner Wang Bingbing reached an understanding with Heng Tinghan, and the village party secretary Wang Dongji knew about the contract and did not expressed any doubts either.

According to the price of 360 yuan per 10,000 bricks which both parties accepted, this brick kiln must be producing 3 million plus bricks per year.  Subtracting the cost of mud coal at 20 yuan per ton and the associated transportation costs, the kiln owner should be making over 100,000 yuan per year.

In this area which is almost the poorest of China, this must have been a huge temptation for Wang Binging.  In 2002, the local Farm Credit Union projected the Wang family income as follows: 8,000 yuan from lime, 5,000 yuan from transportation and 3,000 yuan from farming, for a total of 16,000 yuan.

But if they can have more than 100,000 yuan in profits, it will satisfied both the needs of the kiln owner and the subcontractor for money, and it also guaranteed that the 31 migrant workers will fall into desperate straits.

"He could not make any money a few years ago, but things improved after the subcontractor came in.  So he was hoping to take a chance."  Wang Dongji speculated on the thinking on his son Wang Bingbing afterwards.

Finally, kiln owner Wang Bingbing paid a price for his greed -- after the May 27th affair became public, Wang Bingbing was immediately arrested by the police and held at the county detention center.

The deepest impression of the villagers about this 30-something-year-old man occurred ten years ago.  He was selling food to the nearby towns and villagers.  But his vehicle did not have the associated permits and was therefore detained by the local Transportation Department.  He refused to pay the fine and he even wrapped his body with detonators and protested outside the office of the Transportation Department.  It turned out that his detonators were fake and he was beaten heavily.

This earned him a poor reputation among the villagers: "He was missing a chord somewhere in his brain, and he had weird reasons for doing things."  Among the various relevant departments in Guangshengsi town, Wang Bingbing was described as the prototypical law-breaking trouble-making person.

Over the years, Wang Bingbing had been trying to find ways to make his family wealthy, but he was rarely successful.  He bid for the protect of irrigating the farmlands of the whole village for two years, but he had disputes over fee payments.  In 2002, he had started a lime kiln.  Unfortunately, they were building a scenic area at Guangshengsi town and the lime kiln was exposed on television thrice and had to be shut down.

During the asset valuation by the Farm Credit Union in 2002, Wang Bingbing's family assets were valued at 41,000 yuan, including a 20,000 yuan house and a 13,000 yuan farm vehicle.  So this was a typical local family.

Wang Bingbing had great expectations for the brick kiln after losing the lime kiln.  In June 2003, Wang Bingbing took out a loan of 50,000 yuan from the Farm Credit Union and established the "illegal brick kiln."  But the earnings were poor until Heng Tinghan arrived.

So far, Wang Bingbing has not repaid on the principal of the loan from the Farm Credit Union.  The last time that he paid interest on the 50,000 yuan loan was on April 30.  Twenty-seven days later, the murder at the brick kiln was uncovered.

Afterwards, Wang Bingbing's father Wang Dongji -- this 58-year-old village party secretary who had served 17 years in the military was broadly condemned for his roles as the village party secretary and the father of the brick kiln owner.  "Dereliction of duty, malfeasance, protective umbrella!"  The media and hundreds of netizens called him names.  Wang Dongji joined the army in 1970 and served in an engineering corps of the People's Liberation Army, rising to become deputy platoon leader.  He claimed to have received two Class III awards in the military.  He joined the party in 1975.

Many reporters thought that he had vanished mysteriously over the past 20 or so day.  Actually, he was staying alone in a cave in the hill behind the brick kiln and refusing to receive any visitors.  On the early morning of June 16, our reporter climbed over the hill and arrived at this simple and crude hole to meet this village party secretary who was under a lot of pressure.  The 58-year-old man wailed, "At this stage, I am better off killing myself by ramming my head against the wall!"

He said that he had been maintaining silence.  Now that things have reached this stage, "I will never clear myself even with all the water of the Yellow River.  It can only make things worse if I talk."  On July 14, he was questioned by the county-level investigation team and was informed that he may be relieved of his duties as village party secretary.  So he worked all night to get the paperwork read for the handover.

"I am willing to accept any administrative sanction," he said.  "My only request is to be able to retain my party membership."  As for the worker being buried alive, he claimed that "I was derelict in duty as the village party secretary and the father of the kiln owner, but I was truly unaware of the death."  This was something that he claimed "was a principle that he will observe to the very end."

As for his son, Wang Dongji thought that he was too anxious about making money and therefore deserved all his troubles.  He said that ever since his wife passed away last year in a traffic accident, he "has seldom gone over to eat at his son's place."  On the day of May 27 when he was told the news at the police station, he collapsed on the sofa there.

He explained to our reporter: "If I knew about it and I wanted to protect him, I could have sent all the workers away.  I wouldn't be stupid to keep doing it this year.  How could I be so bold?"

But this "I know nothing" explanation was not accepted by some Caosheng village residents -- in their eyes, Wang Dongji gave people the impression that he was "domineering and untouchable."

People cannot believe that he knew nothing when he walked past the brick kiln almost every day.  Wang Dongji claimed that he used to be a repairman in the army and he was not surprised that workers got dirty.  Therefore, he thought nothing when he saw that the disheveled state of the workers.  "In retrospect, I was too insensitive."  He said that he had asked Heng Tinghan about where the mentally handicapped workers came from.  The response was that they came from Heng's hometown, and he thought that was credible.  "I observed things, but I did not discern the meaning underneath."

His son's brick kiln had no permits whatsoever.  So how could it continue to exist?  Wang Dongji's explanation was that the brick kilns can be said to be the means of creating wealth.  They dug out the earth and flatten the slopes for farmland.  He admitted that he was the one who pushed for their development.  There are five brick kilns in Caosheng village "which even received praise from the county government for the experiment."  He had also served two consecutive terms as the People's Congress representative.

After the murder case at his son's brick kiln was uncovered, Wang Dongji said that everybody has abandoned him.  In Caosheng village, accusations have surfaced about his economic problems.

These include: someone accused him of withholding the farm subsidies issued by the state, at 20 yuan per mu; the village land use permit fees at 6,000 yuan have disappeared; there were also issues with the use of the burial plots for the ancestors and the burial fees, etc.

Wang Dongji clarified each of these items to our reporter.  For example, the farm subsidies were used to purchase farm co-operative health/medical coverage; the village land use permits fee were used to improve electricity service; some other money was spent on repairing the village elementary school and constructing roads.

Since the village affairs were not transparent at Caosheng village and the treasurer never got involved in financial matters because Wang Dongji's decision was everything, it was hard not to expect to see the people's complaints and distrust.

On June 18, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions disciplinary secretary Zhang Mingqi announced that the Caosheng village party secretary Wang Dongji who was suspected to have played the role of protective umbrella in the Shanxi Hongdong illegal brick kiln affair has been "dismissed" from the government and party -- thus ended his 32 year term as Chinese Communist Party member.  He was the first base-level cadre to be ruined after the May 27th incident.

On that day, Wang Dongji had already been taken down to the police station for the day.

On June 16, the subcontractor Heng Tinghan from Henan was arrested.  Together with the arrest of the kiln owner Wang Bingbing, all the direct principals are now under custody.

The investigation of the full responsibility of the case has not paused.  The joint investigative team of Hongdong county is looking into the job performances of government officials.  More than 20 officials who are involved in various aspects of the brick kilns are under investigation.

Wang Bingbing's wife Zhang Mei had hoped to catch a break for her husband by accusing the base-level officials of dereliction of duty.  She told everybody about the inaction of the officials.  She even showed the receipt for 11,000 yuan from the Guangshengsi town police station for expenses incurred in this case, the administrative fine from the town State Land and Resources Administration Department and the letter of warning to clean up from the Environmental Protection Administration.

These documents no doubt caused the people at the relevant departments to be very nervous.

On June 19, on the day after the media exposed that the police station had asked for money in the case, the Guangshengsi police station returned the 33,000 yuan in expenses back to the Wang family and took back the receipts.

Previous to that, the police station director admitted: The police in charge of the district had never visited the brick kiln and so this was a serious dereliction of duty.  After the case was exposed, the police station did not have enough space to accommodate the workers and so the police took the workers back to the kiln where they could be housed and taken care of.  But during the night, eight workers escaped.

The official who was publicly named for criticism -- deputy director Zhang of the Guangshengsi town State Land and Resources Administration -- told our reporter after repeated questions that they did issue a fine but "when things were at their worst, eleven departments were taking money from the brick kilns."  He named departments such as Environmental Protection, Commerce and Industry, Water Works, Wall Construction, etc.

He complained that their difficulties were: "When the brick kiln owners refuse to follow the law and resist closing down, monetary fines maybe be more viable."

According to the information from the town's Environmental Protection Administration: before 1999, the State Economic and Trade Committee had an explicit order to ban any projects for brick kilns in the towns and villages.  In 2006, they had gone in person to close down Wang Bingbing's brick kiln, but they lacked the ability to carry out the law.  All they did was to issue a cease-and-desist order, but nothing happened.  Three days before the case broke open, the deputy director of the Environment Protection Administration was over at this brick kiln.  But he left half an hour later: "The kiln owner was not there, so there was no point for us to stay."

A deputy director of the county's Publicity Department attributed the murders and maltreatment of workers to the lack of awareness of human rights on the part of the kiln owners and subcontractors.

He said that in the impoverished villages of Shanxi, the villagers could not afford to purchase the hollow bricks and other new construction materials that the state endorses.  But there were plenty of cheap solid bricks.  "The relevant policies from above were based upon the general situation, but the actual conditions at the grassroots level may be different."  This may be the long-term reason why the illegal brick kilns exist.

"After the case broke open, Hongdong county cleaned up all the brick kilns on an emergency basis," said this deputy director.  "We did not uncover any other case.  This is an extreme example which caused all of Hongdong county to be shamed.  That is somewhat regrettable."

The various other base-level officials who were interviewed by our reporter all explained: They each have limitations to their job responsibilities and they could not have investigated the illegal brick kilns.  "The people looked filthy and they had long hair, but that was not enough to arouse attention."

But one needs to think also about why the civilians saw nothing -- in the eyes of the local citizens, the Henan subcontractor known to them as "old Heng" was reserved, or even simple and sincere.

The daughter-in-law of Heng Tinghan -- the woman who cooked at the brick kiln -- was obviously afraid of him.  But Heng Tinghan was very courteous when he spoke to the local people.  An old man who lived just a few dozen meters away from the brick kiln said that when Heng Tinghan first came, he wondered about the workers that Heng brought over.  So he asked Heng how he found so many mentally handicapped people to work there.  Heng Tinghan laughed and said that these were all his hometown people.  These people were burdens to their family and they could not even tend after a sheep.  Therefore, the families asked him to take them out for work where they can even make some money.  The old man asked him about the disposition of the wages for these mentally handicapped people.  Heng replied that he will take the money back to the families when he returns home during the Lunar New Year.  There were also times when the old man saw that the workers carried injuries.  Heng told him that the mentally handicapped people often assault others and there was nothing that Heng could do to stop that.

Apart from this case, not many villagers had any suspicions about these illegal workers.  Some of the villagers have sometimes gone to visit the Wang Bingbing house, which is right in front of the brick kiln.  But they thought that it was the Henan person "old Heng" who ought to manage these workers from the outside.