Human Rights in China (HRIC) has learned from sources in China that Chinese authorities have ordered an investigation into the sources of reports of the deaths of five young female workers in Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province.
HRIC reported on March 2 that the young workers, ranging in age from 14 to 17 years old, were found in the dormitory of their textile factory on the morning of December 23, 2004, apparently dead from inhaling the fumes of charcoal that they had burned in a metal bucket to warm themselves. According to HRIC’s sources, the girls were taken to a crematorium and placed in caskets before a proper medical examination was carried out. When family members learned of the matter and demanded an opportunity to view the bodies, the parents of two of the girls, 14-year-old Wang Yujuan and 17-year-old Wang Shimian, found evidence that they believed indicated their daughters had still been alive when placed in their caskets. HRIC’s sources further alleged that local officials had prevented media reports of the case, and had also physically abused family members of the dead girls.
According to HRIC’s sources, HRIC’s report raised considerable concern in China, prompting Premier Wen Jiabao to order a thorough forensic investigation into the deaths of the girls. Sources say that on March 18 a Public Security Bureau forensic medical team went to Shijiazhuang and publicly opened the caskets to examine the bodies and establish whether the girls had died from inhaling charcoal fumes, or if some might have died subsequently due to lack of immediate medical care. The team of seven or eight forensic examiners was reportedly accompanied by around 50 police officers. Family members of the dead girls overhead some of the attending officials say that the examination was personally ordered by Premier Wen Jiabao.
The first bodies to be examined were those of Wang Yajuan and Wang Shimian, whose families feared they had suffocated ` in their caskets. On March 19 the forensic team returned to examine the remaining three girls. Some observers have expressed concern, however, that the exact cause of death may be difficult to determine, given that the girls have already been dead for nearly three months.
Of even greater concern to some people familiar with the case are reports that officials have begun intimidating family members. In addition, Chinese media reports have quoted officials as saying they are determined to establish who revealed the case to media and other parties inside and outside of China. In particular, officials in Luancheng County, where the textile factory was located, have been quoted accusing family members of “intentionally stirring up trouble.” Sources told HRIC that on the afternoon of March 17, public security police telephone family members and interrogated them over how foreign reporters had learned of the case. That same day, municipal and county officials went to the homes of the dead girls’ families and grilled them further over foreign journalists’ interest in the case. Local officials told the families that they were carrying out their inquiries on orders from the provincial authorities.
HRIC has further learned that with the assistance of a team of lawyers, the families of the dead girls have filed three complaints with the Luancheng County court alleging that the Luancheng County Labor Protection Bureau broke the law by failing to monitor the employment of underage workers; that the Luancheng Funeral Parlor failed to follow the procedures laid down in law when it placed the girls in caskets before proper death certificates had been issued; and that the Luancheng People’s Hospital has until the present day refused to provide the families with death certificates for the girls. The complaints are attached to the Chinese version of this press release.
“It’s not surprising that local officials, and even the central government, has been greatly embarrassed by this tragic case,” said HRIC president Liu Qing. “But instead of intimidating bereaved family members and searching for whistle-blowers, the authorities should devote their efforts to ensuring that such tragedies do not occur in the future. China has ratified 23 International Labour Organisation Conventions, including those setting standards on minimum age and health and safety. In order to implement these obligations, the Chinese government first of all needs better monitoring and procedures to prevent the employment of underage workers. Secondly, factory-provided living quarters should be adequately equipped so that workers aren’t forced to use unsafe methods of warming themselves. Thirdly, instead of investigating the source of the embarrassing reports, the authorities should investigate what officials are responsible for procedural violations such as sending the girls to a crematorium before their parents could view their bodies, and refusing to provide them with death certificates. The real cause of the Chinese government’s embarrassment is not the exposure of the tragedy, but rather the government’s long-term failure to address the factors that lead to it.”