Stolen ethnic minority kids victims of Chinese 'Fagins'
  • Mon, 07/02/2007 - 12:00

The Australian
Rowan Callick, China correspondent
27 June 2007

FOLLOWING the freeing of 1000 children held as slave workers in brick kilns in China, a new report reveals a nationwide network of Fagins living off more than 4000 stolen children trained to steal and beg.

A boy who has escaped to a government temporary welfare shelter explains: "We have 16 adults and four children in our gang, living together in a very hard place to find. The adults all carry knives, and train the children how to steal, then threaten people who we steal from, if they complain.

"They force us to pick up coins from boiling water as part of our training to snatch things quickly. If we miss the coin, they beat us with a belt. One 11-year-old boy tried to run away, but he was caught and almost beaten to death."

The "big brothers", or Fagins, who run the gangs set the children daily targets, from about $100 to $350, to hand over. If they fail, they are beaten. The Fagins extend their control by getting the children addicted to drugs, and by sexually harassing the girls. A child trained to steal, can be sold for $1000.

These children are Uighurs, members of the Turkic "ethnic minority" who comprised 90 per cent of the population of Xinjiang in China's northwest when the People's Republic was formed in 1949.

Today, the Uighurs, Indo-European Muslims, are a minority - just 45 per cent - of the total population of 20 million in their own land, whose area is double that of NSW and a sixth that of all China. The Han majority in Xinjiang enjoy a considerably higher average income, recently boosted by the oil and gas piped from the region to the energy-hungry east of China.

Hong Kong-based Chinese-language magazine Phoenix Weekly has compiled a report that, like the investigative work of Fu Zhenzhong of Henan TV who "broke" the story of the slave children in Shanxi province, also reveals aspects of the grim underworld that has grown alongside China's surge towards modernity and wealth.

Phoenix cites the Xinjiang regional Government's welfare agency as estimating that 4000 Uighur children are missing, lost somewhere in China's great interior while 3660 managed to find their way home from abductions in the three years until 2006.

The Xinjiang Academy of Social Science says its research shows that more than 90 per cent of the children who are missing have been forcibly abducted or tricked away from their homes.

The national Ministry of Civil Affairs that provides welfare throughout China says that 13 per cent of all the children for whom it provides assistance are Uighurs, even though they comprise just 0.77 per cent of the population.

The number of Uighur children abducted is likely to be far higher than 4000, says Phoenix because that figure only includes children with whom the official agencies have come into contact.

Staff in the post office in Hetian, another Xinjiang city, in the poverty-stricken south, say: "Money is transmitted from all over the country to villages every day" comprising the "cut" from the children's earnings, flowing to the traffickers and sometimes even to their own families.

"Some local officials shut their eyes to this phenomenon, hoping the thefts can earn money for their areas," says Xu Xifa of the Xinjiang Academy of Social Science.

But often the children abducted were too young to remember where their home was so it becomes very difficult to restore them to their families.

Other times, when the children are freed, one volunteer tells Phoenix, "the traffickers come to claim them, insisting they are the parents or other relatives".

The children, who look quite distinct from the majority Han Chinese, are usually told not to speak Chinese, and to threaten to harm themselves if they are caught by police. They are usually let go, and often, says Phoenix, "big brother" is waiting for them outside the police station.

Throughout China, vigilantes regularly post photos of Uighur child thieves online, calling on the police to crack down on them. Others seek to help the children only to see them handed back to traffickers parading as relatives.