Chen Guangcheng is author of “The Barefoot Lawyer: A Blind Man’s Fight for Justice and Freedom in China.” He is a visiting fellow at the Catholic University of America, distinguished senior fellow in human rights at the Witherspoon Institute and senior distinguished adviser to the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice.
It’s just a few days before Christmas, and all across America holiday spirit is growing, with decorations lighting up homes and main streets. Unfortunately, this warm atmosphere is aided in no small part by forced prison labor from China. As unpleasant as it sounds, the truth is that many of the trappings of the holiday — strings of lights, tchotchkes, gift bags, to name a few — are often made by inmates at prisons or other detention centers in China, who face severe punishment for not achieving daily work quotas.
Indeed, many prisons and detention facilities are really factories unto themselves, with a variety of products being manufactured throughout vast compounds. These are islands of lawlessness, outside the reach of human rights attorneys, journalists, the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations, not to mention the family members of those who are incarcerated within.
Having spent more than four years in prisons and detention centers, and having spoken with many friends, colleagues, and fellow human rights activists who have suffered similar fates, I am unfortunately all too familiar with what happens in these so-called correctional facilities in China.
In the case of holiday lights, prisoners are required to put together 200 to 300 strings of lights per day. In some places, the requirement is not for strings of lights but for the number of light bulbs attached. Inmates are forced to work from 10 to 15 hours a day, sometimes staying up throughout the night. By design, the workload is far greater than can be reasonably accomplished; the pressure to keep up with quotas is so great that people often forgo a chance to go to the bathroom.
Those who are brave enough to refuse orders to do illegal labor will be subjected to “hugging chains” (arms and legs chained and locked together, the body curving forward in a crawling position), or “hanging cuffs” (both hands are raised up high and put through the iron bars of a window or a fence and locked with handcuffs from the outside), or “squatting on the john” (both hands are locked to an iron ring on the floor), or “food stoppage,” “sitting beating” and other punishments. The range and variety are vast. Punishments such as these might last a day or so, or extend to weeks on end. Once torture begins, it does not end easily.
What’s more, prison guards can order a few trusted “work numbers,” as prisoners are called, to take a disobedient inmate out to the prison yard, pull down the person’s pants, and pin the head and limbs down on the ground. Then, in front of everyone gathered, a work number will beat the person’s naked backside with a leather belt, a rubber club or other implement. With each blow, the victim squirms and writhes on the ground.
These events usually end in one of two ways. One is that the misbehaving offender is unable to withstand the pain and, while crying and screaming, begs for mercy and agrees to cooperate with whatever is asked. The other is that the torturer himself has had enough — i.e. is tired out, since beatings of this kind require physical exertion. That’s when the perpetrators start looking for even more efficient ways to inflict pain.
For the most part, those who are put in detention centers in China have not undergone a trial — they’re just suspects. Chinese and international law are extremely clear that such detainees are not criminals and cannot be forced to do labor. Laws regulating prisons are also clear that any labor must adhere to strict guidelines for time worked, breaks, conditions, etc.
However, in mainland China today, inmates in the majority of detention centers nationwide are forced to do labor, and work conditions in prisons would by any measure be considered unlawful. This fuels a shadow economy where goods made from forced labor are pushed out into the “real” economy and abroad, enriching and incentivizing prison system officials all along the chain of authority to maintain the status quo of violence, secrecy and denial.
Some people have said to me, “Well, that’s China, right?” as though to suggest we should simply accept this, that what goes on in China has no bearing on our more comfortable, free lives here in America. To me, the America I know is better than that.
When our joy is unwittingly fueled by the suffering of others, we have a problem in our system that must be addressed. When our cost-saving holiday purchases are the end product of a network of corrupt prison guards, prison officials and party officials who are selling to foreign corporations who don’t ask the tough questions for fear of losing a good deal, we must take action. We must demand more from our representatives in government and from the businesses whose products we buy. Thankfully, in the United States, where we can speak out openly, we have the power to make the world a better place for everyone.
None of us wants our joy of the holiday season tainted with the sweat and pain from those enslaved in prisons a world away. I implore all readers with a conscience to refuse to purchase goods such as these manufactured in countries ruled by dictatorships.