BEIJING -- He was a cooking student looking for his first job, and when a stranger offered him restaurant work he eagerly accepted. But the 20-year-old was taken instead to a rural brick kiln where he toiled as a slave with little food, no pay and regular beatings that nearly killed him.
Yet Zhang Yinlei is among the lucky.
He was one of at least 548 workers rescued so far in a crackdown on brick factories in north central China where abducted men and children as young as 8 had been sold into slavery for $65 a head. Most of those were rescued this week in raids on thousands of kilns in two provinces.
The case has so scandalized China that state media announced Friday that President Hu Jintao had personally ordered a prompt investigation.
Child labor and harsh working conditions used to be the stuff of propaganda movies used by the Chinese Communists to discredit capitalist societies. Today they are a fact of life in a country driven by its own pursuit of wealth, often at the expense of the poor.
China's leaders, worried about its reputation as the sweatshop of the world, are trying to clean up its image, especially in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics.
Embarrassing stories, however, continue to dog them.
Just last week, China was accused of employing children as young as 12 to produce Olympic-related souvenirs. Authorities denied the report by the Brussels, Belgium-based PlayFair, saying instead that six middle-school and two primary school students had been hired during school holidays to "pack notebooks, not Olympic licensed products," according to the New China News Agency.
The latest scandal - slavery at brick factories - might not have come to light had a group of 400 fathers with missing sons not sent out a collective cry for help on the Internet. They accused local authorities of turning a blind eye to the abuses and suggested that as many as 1,000 children had been kidnapped from Henan province and shipped to nearby Shanxi province by human traffickers who abducted their children near train and bus stations or lured them away with prospects of high-paying jobs.
As a result, more than 35,000 police from Henan province and 14,000 from Shanxi province fanned out to about 10,000 kilns, detaining at least 140 suspects, the official Xinhua news agency said Friday. More raids and arrests were expected.
Before the crackdown, some of the fathers had been conducting their own rescue missions.
"We saved more than 100 boys during 15 different occasions," said Chai Wei, whose 17-year old son disappeared in April on the streets near their home. Chai and two other fathers with missing children banded together and traveled to hundreds of small kilns in search of their children.
"They start work at 5 in the morning and sometimes don't finish until past midnight," Chai said. "They get no pay and are fed only bread and water. If they try to run away, they would break their legs. Some were buried alive. We saw police pull out two bodies. One was an 18-year-old. The other was 19."
Fathers said that most of the time when they showed up, the young workers had been sent into hiding. If not, they said, there was usually a confrontation, and sometimes thugs hired by the owners would beat the parents and chase them away.
"They had completely lost their freedom," said Zhang Shanlin, the father of the rescued 20-year-old. "I saw six vicious guard dogs and seven hit men. Anyone who didn't work hard enough was beaten. There was no chance of running away." His son had refused to work and was burned all over his back with hot bricks.
"Another young man tried to run away; they burnt him on the face, leaving only the mouth," Chai said. "So he could still eat and continue to work."
The injured were given no medical treatment and left in cramped and dirty living quarters where men had not washed for so long that sores caked their bodies, and their hair had grown down to their waists, Chai said.
Zhang said his son was finally sent to the hospital after a raid that followed local residents' reporting the brutal working conditions to police. When they were freed, some of the laborers seemed so dazed and frightened they could barely talk.
One of the reasons the inhumane treatment has gone on for as long as it has, parents say, is that the owner is the son of a local Communist Party official and the police were reluctant to touch him.
"Of course he knew what's going on at the brick factory," Zhang said. "He visited there several times a week and he provided the coal and electricity that ran the place."
Despite the crackdown, hundreds more parents, including Chai, have yet to reunite with their children.
"I don't know if we will ever find him," Chai said. "It cuts like a knife. Each day we don't find him is another day for him of living in danger."
Ching-Ching Ni writes for the Los Angeles Times.