Oliver Steeds

The Hunt for He Wen by Oliver Steeds

Oliver Steeds is one of the most dedicated human beings I have ever come across. Everything he puts his heart into, may it be exploration or journalism, he does it perfectly. On top of that he is very good a marketing AND an extraordinary good human being. I have known him for quite a few years and he never stops to surprise me with his drive and dedication to helping people, me included. So, as you readers might well understand, I am very happy indeed to give you a world exclusive on his new topic, The Hunt For He When! He got arrested by the authorities again. That dedicated a guy, who puts his own life at risk, when helping others! Olly has now launched a campaign called Finding He Wen. The money raised will go to the ongoing search on the ground in China – going brick factory to brick factory, hiring a local lawyer to take the case on, register it with the police, ‘legally encourage’ them to conduct an investigation, whilst also engaging the local press to spread the word of He Wen’s abduction.



Oliver Steeds

He Zhimin’s hands shake as he holds a small coloured photograph of his son. The shakes had started nine months ago, when his son vanished. On the back of the card, he has printed his son’s details. “He Wen, Age 35, 1metre 75cm. Missing…”

Unlike Ai Weiwei, China’s best-known dissident and artist who was arrested boarding a plane to Hong Kong, on April 3rd, He Wen’s disappearance has gone largely unreported by the world’s media and there are no high profile calls for his release. “Kill the monkey to scare the chickens” as the Chinese saying goes which may go someway to understanding why the authorities have arrested Ai Weiwei. But perhaps it’s He Wen’s story that holds the key to understanding China’s most repressive crackdown since Tiananmen 1989.

China’s inflationary squeeze is starting to hit ordinary people. The cost of living is up and many of the poorest are struggling to fill their rice bowls. Last year there were more than 100,000 protests across the country often sparked by individuals or communities rising up against local or provincial cases of corruption, land-development, employment or human rights violations. Most of those protesting have faced official disinterest, intransigence and violence.

Brick Factory – one of dozens that Mr He has been searching in – the building in the foreground with the blue roof is where the mud is mixed and packed and then cut into bricks

In January this year an unknown group, inspired by events in North Africa and the Middle East, launched their own Jasmine Revolution with calls on twitter and other bulletin boards for a united protest against the repressive, single-party rule of the Communist Party.

The Party fears a generalised, national protest could provide the focus and glue to the millions of increasingly marginalised and disaffected. It is these “faceless millions” who could pose the real threat to the government’s long term strategy and the cohesion of the Chinese state itself.

He Zhimin is one of them. He’s a farmer in Sanyuan Town, a few miles outside Shaanxi’s provincial capital of Xian.

Last June, a woman approached his son at the local market, offered him a job and money and then abducted him. Mr He says the woman was part of a trafficking gang and that his son was abducted and forced in to a life of slavery – like thousands of other mentally impaired young men.

He Wen’s room – as it was when he was abducted. He went missing in the summer and Mr He has purposefully left the mosquito net and fan up as a constant reminder to the day He Wen went missing.

“My son is a kind-hearted child,” Mr He says. “He is as tall and strong as I am. He’s able to work but he has the mental age of a child. Our whole family searched the town for him but he never came back. I have to remain positive because one way or another I’ve got to keep looking for him. Whether I find him alive or his corpse, either way I must find my son.”

Mr He immediately reported the disappearance to the police, but he claims they refuse to take on the case. They refused to take witness statements and he wasn’t even allowed to register He Wen as a missing person.

Mr He is left to search for his son on his own, printing off thousands of ‘Missing Person’ posters and distributing them around the county. Within a few weeks, he began getting calls from eyewitnesses, many claiming they had seen him working in local brick factories.

“As my son is mentally impaired, they made him work in the kiln,” Mr He says. “It’s easy to control him. The bricks were still hot when they made my son move them. They told me he was beaten all over his body with bricks [ if he didn’t work hard enough?”]

With hundreds of brick kilns across the county, Mr He has an almost impossible task. In the last nine months he has visited 40 kilns and come across many other cases of mentally impaired people who have been abducted into slavery. As a result of his investigations, he’s been threatened and at times even violently attacked.

Mr Li holding up a missing persons card for his missing son.

A couple of months ago Mr. He got a call about a man fitting his son’s description in a village 50 miles north of Sanyuan.

It turned out not to be his son, but 32 year old Liu Xiaoping. He too was mentally impaired and had been abducted and enslaved in brick factories for 10 months. At times he worked with Mr. He’s son.

Xiaoping’s father says during the day his son had to work in a brick factory and by night he was chained to a bed. “If he wasn’t working as they wanted, the factory owners would get a hot metal rod and burn it across his face. Sometimes, they purposefully put hot bricks on the back of Xiaoping’s legs as punishment.”

Xiaoping’s injuries got so bad that he couldn’t do any more physical labour and he was thrown out onto the streets and that was when Mr. He found him. “If Mr He hadn’t found him then, he would have been dead within two days,” Mr Liu says

The hillside being devoured by the brick factory – earth being dug out here is then used to make bricks in the factory below.

When Mr He found him he had been tortured so badly the toes on his left foot had to be amputated. He spent the next 41days in a specialist burns unit at the local hospital until funds ran out. His family are now bankrupt and the State is doing nothing to support them.

Xiaoping’s parents and Mr He both talk in desperation of the state’s failure to help them. And they are not alone. The Beijing based NGO “Enable Disability Studies Institute” estimate that at least 10,000 people with mental impairments have already been abducted and 1.5million are at risk. At best the authorities are impassive, at worst they are actively trying to cover it up.

Yang Bin, from the charity says it’s incredibly difficult to prosecute the traffickers and the owners of the brick factories: “China’s legal system is weak. Modern day China is like a lawless jungle which enables the traffickers to prey on the weak and vulnerable and with impunity.”

In December last year, a local journalist broke the story that 137 mentally impaired people had been abducted from a government run welfare centre in Sichuan Province. Reports were horrific. A dozen people were found barely alive in a brick factory in Xinjiang Province, others were found dotted around the country, most often in brick factories. Survivors spoke of being tortured with electric cattle prods, some were beaten with bricks, some died, others simply disappeared when their slave masters took them away when their bodies were too beaten and exhausted to work.

Within days, the story went nationwide. People were horrified and wanted answers. As a local journalist started to dig around, the trafficking ring behind the abductions came into focus. A man had set up a front-company and claimed to be providing jobs and training for patients.

Mr Li’s missing son – also mentally impaired like He Wen and abducted from the same village as He Wen in December 2010

At the time he was even lauded in the local press and given an Entrepreneurial Award by a local politician. Chinese journalists were quick to jump on the State’s failure to protect the mentally impaired – one of many cases where the country’s social safety net is creaking under the pressures of growth and change. A Communist Party Official was implicated and arrested.

Then, like so many other occasions when public anger rises and protests escalate the State police went in and silenced anyone reporting on the case. When we tried to investigate as part of an ‘Unreported World documentary for Channel 4, we too were arrested. In the eyes of Beijing, reporting on state failure cannot be tolerated.

Stories like these and the abduction of He Wen strike at the heart of China’s problems. Cracks are opening up as China feels the growing pains of massive social upheaval and economic development.

In name this is the People’s Republic where the state is supposed to protect all. But in reality, as China powers ahead the most vulnerable are being left behind and all too often exploited. This is the lack of ‘social harmony’ the Party fears most.



But the hunt for He Wen is on. Where the state is failing, I believe we can help. Since making a film about Mr. He’s search for son that aired in the UK (available online – see below), there has been a wave of interest to support the search.

To that end, I have crossed over from being just an impartial journalist documenting an event, to now trying to have an impact. For some journalists, the ethics of involvement are questionable, but for me, this is a simple choice – I can make a difference, so I must. Silence and inactivity in this, smacks of complicity.

I have now launched a campaign called Finding He Wen. The money we raise will go to the ongoing search on the ground in China – going brick factory to brick factory, hiring a local lawyer to take the case on, register it with the police, ‘legally encourage’ them to conduct an investigation, whilst also engaging the local press to spread the word of He Wen’s abduction.

Oliver Steeds (www.oliversteeds.com)












More Details about the Film:


Reporter Oliver Steeds with the not so secret police in Sichuan Province. A team of 10 ‘undercover’ plain clothes agents saw the team off at the station ensuring they left their patch.

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