Christmas message from China "factory": Get us out of this prison camp!

Christmas is a time of joy and discovery, especially for children, but young Florence Widdicombe got more discovery than anyone would wish. After buying greeting cards from UK supermarket giant Tesco, the six-year-old began writing out her Christmas greetings. What she found in one card, however, set off an international dispute over China’s prison-camp operations, trade policies, and called into question just how much the West is prepared to overlook in its relations with Beijing:

After a 6-year-old girl found a plea for help from Chinese prison laborers inside a Christmas card she was preparing to send to friends, the U.K. grocery chain Tesco said it halted production at the factory in China where the cards were produced.

Tesco said it also launched an investigation of the Chinese supplier it hired to make the holiday cards, Zheijiang Yunguang Printing, after the Sunday Times raised questions about the factory’s labor practices. The newspaper reported the factory used forced labor to produce charity Christmas cards for the supermarket.

The potentially problematic source of the cards came to light when Florence Widdicombe, 6, of London was writing holiday cards to friends and found one that already had a message written inside. The statement read: “We are foreign prisoners in Shanghai Qinqpu prison China forced to work against our will. Please help us and notify human rights organization.”

Widdicombe and her family asked Tesco a few pointed questions about the sourcing of their greeting cards. After that, matters escalated quickly, although at first this appeared to be a prank. Once Tesco determined that it wasn’t a joke, they suspended orders from the supplier, which denies using prison labor:

A factory in China has denied it used forced labour after a six-year-old girl found a message from workers inside a Tesco charity Christmas card. The card supplier, Zhejiang Yunguang Printing, told China’s Global Times it had “never done such a thing”.

Tesco halted production at the factory over the message, allegedly written by prisoners claiming they were “forced to work against our will”.

The Chinese foreign ministry said the allegation was “a farce”.

Speaking to the nationalist newspaper Global Times on Monday, a spokesman for the card supplier said: “We only became aware of this when some foreign media contacted us. We have never done such a thing. Why did they include our company’s name?”

The man named in the card rejects the denials from the supplier. Journalist Peter Humphrey spent time in Qingpu prison in Shanghai and says that Beijing is not telling the truth about it:

Peter Humphrey, a former fraud investigator and journalist, wrote an article about the note allegedly penned by foreign inmates in Shanghai’s Qingpu prison — where he himself was once held.

A spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry denied there was any forced labour by foreign convicts at Qingpu and attacked Humphrey for inventing a “farce” to “hype himself up”.

Contacted by AFP for his response, Humphrey — who is now based in Britain — said: “It’s the kind of answer they have given to every allegation of human rights abuses that is ever mentioned.

“This is really completely to be expected, because nothing except lies ever comes back to the world when any such issue arises,” he said.

There’s an easy way to check who’s telling the truth, at least if everyone acts quickly. Send a team of investigators to Qingpu to see who’s there, and review the records to check whether foreigners have been transferred in or out recently. That could get done under the auspices of either the UN or the World Trade Organization if need be. That might not be terribly popular even outside of China, however, where Western nations just don’t ask questions about the cheap products that their businesses routinely source from China. To ask questions would be to get very uncomfortable answers, or threadbare lies.

For the moment, though, Humphrey’s own experience makes him a wee bit more credible than self-serving statements from those sources in China’s media mouthpieces. The UK should demand more accountability from China about the operation of those prisons and who is being held within them — and so should the US and other Western nations.