China denies forced labour claims after prisoner’s message is found in Tesco supermarket Christmas card

Wendy Wu

China denied allegations that foreign prisoners were being used as forced labour after media reports that a British girl had found a plea for help in a Christmas card.

The Sunday Times reported over the weekend that a six-year-old girl in London had found a message in a Christmas card bought from a Tesco supermarket apparently written by a prisoner who said they were forced to work against their will.

But China’s foreign ministry insisted the report had been “made up” by Peter Humphrey, a former journalist who was imprisoned in China six years ago.

“I have read the reports by British media, all made up by Mr Peter Humphrey,” Geng Shuang, the foreign ministry spokesman, said on Monday.

“I can tell you responsibly that, after seeking clarification from relevant departments, there is no situation at all of forced labour by foreign prisoners in Shanghai Qingpu Prison,” Geng said.

He accused Humphrey of making up the reports to “hype himself up” and said that “the farce he made up is really out of date”.

“I can give a piece of advice to him, if he hopes to become eye-catching, at least can get some new tricks,” he said.

Florence Widdicombe, six, found the message in a Tesco card. Photo: AP

Humphrey is a former journalist who spent 23 months in Chinese prisons, including Qingpu, on what he said were bogus charges that were probably triggered by his work in China as a corporate fraud investigator.

Tesco suspends Chinese cards supplier over prison labour claims

He said he had contacted fellow ex-prisoners after the girl’s family got in touch with him.

Tesco said at the weekend that it was shocked by the report and it would not tolerate prison labour in its supply chain. The company said it had immediately halted production at a Chinese factory that produced the cards.

“We are foreign prisoners in Shanghai Qingpu prison China. Forced to work against our will,” the message in the Christmas card read.

“Please help us and notify human rights organisation. Use the link to contact Mr Peter Humphrey.”

Tesco says it has stopped production at the factory at the centre of the claims. Photo: AFP

Qingpu prison – which has both domestic and international prisoners – says on its website that holding foreign inmates from 40 nationalities “offers a lawful platform for cultural exchange”.

The website shows several modern buildings, one with a glass facade, behind a green lawn and a blue sky and says it offers inmates “lessons on general law, morals, culture, skills and other basic education”.

China has faced growing criticism in the West over its human rights record in recent months – particularly over Xinjiang.

EU ramps up human rights pressure over Xinjiang with legislative threat

US think tank the Centre for Strategic and International Studies said in a report in October that forced labour was increasingly becoming integral to Beijing’s efforts to “re-educate” Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.

Government officials in China maintain that the detention centres are “vocational training centres”. It has accused the West of using double standards in countering terrorism and extremism.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse and Bloomberg

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