Child Trafficking and Local Protectionism in China

(Credit: Antarctica Journal Light)

Memo #187

By Anqi Shen (left, Anqi.Shen [at], Georgios A. Antonopoulos (middle, g.antonopoulos [at] and Georgios Papanicolaou (right, g.papanicolaou [at]


Child trafficking in China is an explosive issue. Although the precise scale of human trafficking in China is unknown, children are reported to account for about 40 per cent of the total victims – a twofold increase in less than a decade. We assume the demand for child forced labour comes from illegitimate actors. But the surprising and tragic truth is that local government entrepreneurialism taps on the opportunities offered by child forced labour. This is a key contributing factor to this development.

Because provincial governments are treated as enterprises by the central government, local officials focus largely on local economic performance, reputation, and social stability. Such concerns foster policies geared towards local rather than national benefit. This regime, referred to as “local protectionism” (地方保护主义), encourages local governments to take action that deviates from national law and policy to achieve high performance.

Local protectionism has meant that child trafficking and child forced labour are tolerated and often overlooked by local officials. The Chinese government approaches child trafficking as an important issue. Local officials, too, acknowledge its significance. But faced with a dilemma between law and economic performance, they often turn a blind eye to child forced labour when successful, profitable businesses are involved.

Small-scale, private businesses such as coal mines, brick kilns, or factories regularly exploit trafficked children and local authorities have not acted. In some extreme cases, local officials have even hampered investigations and rescue operations. For example in the high profile “illegal brick kiln” case, the police suppressed a report from a child’s parent and actively attempted to misdirect them. In other cases, local public officials have been reported to provide cover for traffickers and to compromise police investigations. But domestic news reports go even further to suggest that some local public officials may have been complicit in different phases of the trafficking process itself, buying and using children in their private businesses.

Local protectionism in child trafficking is largely facilitated by decentralization of governmental power and the measurement of local performance by GDP generation ability. For local officials, economic performance and local GDP takes precedent over children’s welfare.

Dr. Anqi Shen is Senior Lecturer in Law and Policing at Teesside University, UK.

Dr. Georgios A. Antonopoulos is Reader in Criminology at Teesside University, UK.

Dr. Georgios Papanicolaou is Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Teesside University, UK.

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