BEIJING – China announced more arrests and a provincial governor apologized Friday as the government stepped up efforts to try to show it was responding to a growing slave labor scandal.
Amid the host of new revelations, media said slavery ringleaders were hiding child laborers and charging ransoms for their release. Many had been abducted from train stations and sold for as little as $65 to illegal brick kilns.
The scandal shows little sign of abating, despite repeated calls for investigations by top leaders and apparent attempts to limit additional coverage in state media. With Internet users and some media outlets expressing outrage, Premier Wen Jiabao could see his reputation tarnished for failing to follow through on his public image as defender of the underprivileged.
Early Friday, the official Xinhua News Agency reported the arrests of two labor bureau officials for abetting slave labor operations in brick kilns in Shanxi province.
The pair are the first officials arrested in connection with the enslaving of hundreds of children and adults at brick factories where they were forced to work long hours in grueling conditions without pay.
Police in Shanxi said 55 people were being investigated in 15 separate cases of slavery at brick kilns. Of those, 35 were in detention with the other 20 on the run, according to Xinhua. Charges against them were not given.
However, Sun Baoshu, a vice chairman of the official trade union federation, said authorities were focusing on crimes of forced labor, illegal detention, assault and forced child labor.
Xinhua identified the two arrested officials as the head of the labor inspection team in Yongji district of Shanxi province, who was charged with dereliction of duty, and one of his officers, charged with abuse of power.
It said the two officials were responsible for abducting an underaged laborer who had been released from a kiln and was being transported home. They then sent the boy to another kiln where he was again forced into slavery, it said.
Sun, the union official, identified the victim in that case as a 17-year-old boy surnamed "Zhu" from Henan province neighboring Shanxi. The Associated Press this week interviewed a father in Henan Province, Zhu Guoxing, who said his son had undergone a similar experience, although it could not be confirmed whether the two were the same individuals.
The scandal that has brewed on the Internet and in state media prompted an extraordinary self-criticism this week from Shanxi Governor Yu Youjun, making him the first high-ranking official to perform a potentially career-damaging act of contrition in relation to the case.
That came during a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday presided over by Wen, who has built his public image on concern for the welfare of ordinary Chinese. Wen has ordered a thorough probe and punishment of kiln owners and officials who abetted their activities.
On Friday, Yu went still further, offering a public apology and accepting blame for the scandal.
"I feel ... heart-stricken over the scandal. On behalf of the provincial government, I apologize to the victims and their families, as well as to all the people in Shanxi," Yu said, according to Xinhua.
Since the scandal broke last month, more than 8,000 kilns and small coal mines in Shanxi and Henan provinces have been raided, with 591 workers freed, including 51 children, according to state media.
Shanxi police said 359 people had been freed in the province, 12 of whom were underage, while the ages of nine others were being checked, according to Xinhua.
About 160 suspected kiln bosses have been detained in the two provinces, and a village-level Communist Party secretary in Shanxi's Hongtong county expelled from the party after his son was found to be operating a kiln where 31 slaves were found laboring under extraordinarily cruel conditions.
Hongtong's county government has dispatched work teams to 12 provinces and cities to deliver letters of apology and compensation of $184 for each month they worked in the kiln — three times the province's minimum wage, Xinhua said.
Other party members have also been issued warnings over the cases, it said.
Workers, including small children, were kidnapped or lured with false promises of well-paying jobs by recruiters at train and bus stations. Sold on to kiln owners, they were beaten, starved and forced to haul bricks for up to 20 hours per day for no pay. Many of those rescued showed serious injuries from burns and beatings.
Investigations have been spearheaded largely by parents searching the mountains of southern Shanxi for missing sons. One group claiming to represent 400 fathers circulated an open letter online saying 1,000 children were being held and accusing officials of ignoring or obstructing their searches.
However, reports Friday said some parents had been contacted by their abducted sons who told them they would be released on payment of a ransom.
The official China Daily newspaper said a family surnamed Yuan said their son told them the kiln boss was demanding $4,600 for his release. It said other operators had been tipped off to raids and shifted their slave laborers to remote hiding places.