I went to Shanxi for a few days recently (the bonus is to cover one more province in my footprint map). For the interest of time, instead of posting a travelogue, I will just list a few notes to share.
The Brick Kilns
1. People talked to me about the slave kiln voluntarily (before I asked). People I talked to confirmed that this has been widespread for some time and the local governments have at least been aware of such things to some degree.
Worse still, there was at least another case of burying a slave alive in Ruicheng County (芮城). I hope if there are journalists who come across this could go there to confirm if this is true. Because if it is indeed the case, that means there have been cover-ups in the investigation. The People (or Mr Wen) will have more ammunition to ask for a thorough review of the accountability of the bad officials
2. Contrary to the sentiment outside, in general, the local people do not feel that the punishment has been too lenient. I even heard of sympathetic comment about a deputy county mayor who was on the job only for 1 year.
3. On the road, one often see some 'wanderers'. the locals who drove with me told me that many of them were "released" from the kilns, and left to survive by themselves. "release" was actually a euphemism, the kiln owners actually drove them to the middle of nowhere and got rid of them. Since many of these ex-slaves are mentally retarded, they have no idea where they want to go. So they just wandered around.
4. Across the border in Sha'anxi province (陜西), I saw many klins by the freeway as well. I do not know if the situation is similar as it is in Shanxi (山西). But I think this worths a good story to cover for the journalists because
- if these kilns do not hire slave labor, it would be interesting to know how they managed to compete with the kilns 50-100 kms away across the provincial border
- if there are many kilns in Shaanxi, but there has been no abuse. That means something has really been going wrong in Shanxi. Mostly likely it is the provincial government
6. Many small factories were seen along the coal area (e.g., between Linfen 临汾 and Pingyao 平遥 ). We saw coal everywhere along the river and the rail tracks. Many of these small factories store a lot of coal in their back yard. Apparently, it is cheaper to burn coal for power for them
7. When we passed through Xian 西安，construction was everywhere. It was reminiscent of Pudong in 1996-1997. If you ask me whether China's growth will continue for the next decade, you need to visit these cities. They are undergoing the same dramatic changes as the coastal cities on 10-15 ago. In 10-15 years, Xian will be like Shanghai, Taiyuan will be like Nanjing.
8. We took the cheap cabin train for a large part of our trip, mainly because there is only one cabin class ("Hard seat") available in the schedule. But we also wanted to talk to the average citizens. In a culture where people are shy in talking to strangers the train is perhaps the only exception, this has been so even back in the Mao era (when the society was more close).
On the way, we were inquired twice about the pork price in HK, by two groups of middle age ladies. They said 500g of pork cost 5-7RMB last year and it cost 17.5RMB now. To them pork price is like gasoline price to the American.
I asked my mom when I went back to HK. Apparently she failed to notice the difference. After some questioning, my conclusion is that the price hike was probably less than 50% in HK. It is understandable that the price hike was much more noticeable in Shanxi, because all the cost come from the real cost of "manufacturing" the pork, i.e. rearing. Whereas in HK, or perhaps in coastal province the "value-added" (transportation, middle man, distribution) represent a large portion of the price, which has not changed as dramatically.
(similar observation on the change in gasoline price in US vs HK, while crude oil price hiked in the past few years. The percentage increase in US was much higher than that in HK, as the base in HK was much larger.)