“Although formal agreements have been made between the U.S. and Chinese governments to stop the export of prison labor goods to the U.S., the practice nonetheless continues. [Officials of the U.S. Embassy in China] have recently identified a number of products for retail sale by prison labor, to include artificial flowers, Christmas decorations, shoes, and garments. At least some of these items are making their way to the U.S. market,” said Commissioner Peter Videnieks at a hearing on June 19 that the Commission held on the subject of China’s prison labor.
It is illegal to import goods into the U.S. that are products of prison labor—a statue that dates back to 1930. Commissioner Videnieks continued that this illegal practice “hurts legitimate U.S. businesspeople who are trying to play by the rules.”
The Commission faulted China’s refusal to allow U.S. inspections of prisons in violation of agreements it signed. The Commission explicitly rejected China’s classifying persons held under its “reform by labor” system as not prisoners; China is designating such persons as non-prisoners, so that the work facility is not subject to U.S.-China agreements on prison labor.
The prison labor problem takes up only a small portion of the nearly 400-page document which reports on China’s threats to international peace and to U.S. economic and national security, including government manipulation of its economy and currency; cyber attacks and spying, arms sales to the rogue regimes of Sudan, Burma, and Iran; tightening information control to its citizens; and the potential of a major health risk to Americans due to contaminated fish imported from China’s fish farms. The bipartisan Commission, consisting of six Republicans six Democrats, reached unanimous consent, held eight hearings during the year, and made 45 recommendations.
This article focuses on Chinese prison labor concerning products imported in the United States. Future reports will discuss other findings and recommendations in the 2008 annual report of the China Commission.
China’s Labor Camps
The Chinese system of prison labor facilities and reeducation camps aims to punish and reform criminals and others deemed undesirable.
Today, one can be administratively sentenced by the local public security forces to a reform institution in the labor camp system for associating with a group that the CCP regards unfavorably, or endangering state security. Chinese citizens are sentenced to “reeducation through labor” for up to three years without any formal judicial proceedings. Common criminal convicts are lumped together with political prisoners in the labor camp system, but the former have a right to a trial.
The prison system in present-day China had its origins after the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) defeated the Nationalists in 1949 and desired to “reform” its political opponents. Modeled after the Soviet Gulag with its vast archipelago of prison work camps, the Chinese communists set up a network of prison camps throughout China. The objective of imprisonment was not only to punish, but to change the thinking of the incarcerated as well as to gain economically from the products made.
“Accurate information on the size of the Chinese forced labor system, the scope of its economic production, and the demographic composition of its prisoner population is difficult to obtain from official sources. The Chinese [regime] classifies such information related to the prison system as a state secret,” writes the Commission.
During the earlier years, especially following the mass arrests of Mao’s political campaigns, there was a relatively large number of political prisoners in the system. More recently, it has been alleged that a large proportion of the population is made up of Falun Gong practitioners. One of the latter, Charles Lee, as a U.S. citizen of Chinese heritage, was allegedly forced with other prisoners to “spend long hours making Christmas lights intended for export to the U.S. retail market,” according to the research of Gregory Xu, June 2005 before the Congressional-Executive Commission on China.
Representatives of Falun Gong from Europe gave evidence that Falun Gong practitioners were sold from other correctional facilities to serve as slave labor in the production of wigs exported to the United States and Europe. The company, Henan Rebecca Hair Products, was named in the report, as well as the two labor camps in Henan province. The “project … proved very profitable to the camp and its officials,” says the report.
Jung Chang in her book, Mao, says that during Mao Zedong’s period, China’s prison and labor camp population was roughly 10 million in any one year, and the conditions were so harsh that the annual death rate was at least 10 percent. Conditions are still harsh and degrading, according to former prisoners. Although Chinese law does not permit working longer than an eight hour day, prisoners commonly work 12 or more hours a day, typically attend 2-hour political propaganda sessions after work, and are expected show progress in their thought reform. Food rations are minimal.
“Counter revolutionary crimes” was the basis used in the 1970s to send one to this prison system, in which the criminal code described the criminal as one having the goal of overthrowing the political system. More recently, the interpretation of the counter revolutionary crime was greatly expanded. “When the crime was renamed ‘endangering state security’ under the 1997 criminal code, an explanation of what constituted endangerment was not provided. As a result, the PRC may now criminalize activities it interprets as threatening state security,” writes Ramin Pejan, in the Human Rights Brief (2000, vol. 7, no. 2).
The dual political and economic role continued under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, beginning in the late 1970s, despite the economic reforms that were carried out. “[P]rison labor became a significant source of Chinese manufactured goods,” says the report. It is linked to the CCP-controlled state and economy.
The regime shows no shame in this holdover from its past. “Each [labor] camp has both a camp name and a public name. For example, the Shanghai Municipal Prison is also called the Shanghai Printing, Stationery Factory,” writes Pejan.
China Sets Up Roadblocks to Prison Labor Enforcement
In 1992 and 1994, the United States and China entered into agreements on enforcing the ban of prison labor products imported into the United States. These allowed inspections within 60 days of suspected facilities and stated the exact procedures.
Chinese officials from the PRC’s Ministry of Justice allowed just three of 18 prison site visits requested by the U.S. Customs between 1996 to 2002, and none of these inspections occurred within the 60-day period required by the agreements. Five site visits were granted between September 2002 and April 2005. No evidence was found that the particular facilities were making goods bound for the United States. No visits have been allowed since 2005.
The Commission says the conduct of PRC officials, that is, the small number of site visits permitted and the long delays in getting in to inspect, suggests that “U.S. officials are granted permission to visit only selected prison facilities from which all evidence of export manufacturing has been removed.”
In recent years, talks between China and the United States on prison labor have been sporadic and Chinese officials evasive. As U.S. investigation of prison labor in China is wholly dependent upon Chinese official cooperation, there appears to be nothing the United States can do.
The Commission recommended that when Customs enforcement officials have not been permitted to inspect a prison labor facility within 60 days of their request, that products from that facility be denied admittance into the United States, at least temporarily.
Prison Labor vs. Forced Labor
Besides being uncooperative, the PRC classifies some “reeducation through labor” sites as off limits to U.S. officials, namely the ones that hold political and religious dissenters, who were sentenced administratively outside the judicial system. The PRC maintains that these “forced labor” camps are not “prisons,” and therefore are not covered by agreements on prison labor.
The Commission firmly rejects the PRC definition of prison labor and states that “forced labor under penal conditions” is “prison labor,” regardless on how the Chinese regime officially designates such facilities.
The Commission recommended that Congress urge the administration to amend the U.S.-China agreement to make explicit that “reeducation through labor” facilities are within the scope of agreements related to prison labor.