Chinese prison in Tesco scandal offers ‘re-education’, and served pizza at Christmas, its boss says

Alice Yan

The head of a Shanghai prison has denied reports in a British media outlet that it used foreign inmates for forced labour, claiming prisoners were voluntarily undergoing “re-education”.

Li Qiang, director and Communist Party secretary of Qingpu District Prison, said the report in The Sunday Times was groundless and based on “rich imagination”, China’s state broadcaster CCTV reported.

Li’s defence of the prison came after a six-year-old girl in London found a message written inside a greeting card bought from a Tesco supermarket, which said it had been packed by foreign prisoners against their will.

Tesco has suspended the Chinese supplier of the Christmas cards – a printing company in Zhejiang, about 100km from Shanghai – while it investigates.

The writer of the hidden message had asked whomever found it in the card to notify human rights organisations and contact Peter Humphrey, a former British journalist who spent 23 months in Chinese prisons, including Qingpu. The father of the girl who found it contacted Humphrey, who took the story to The Sunday Times.

Humphrey said he had been jailed on bogus charges that were probably triggered by his work in China as a corporate fraud investigator. He was released in 2015.

Li said the alleged forced labour in the prison was in fact “re-education”, according to the CCTV report.

China denies forced labour claims after cry for help found in Christmas card

“Firstly, it is of their own will,” Li said. “Secondly, the project they join is determined by their own capabilities and they must make an application first. Thirdly, we will give inmates pay for some proportion of their labour contributions.”

Many re-education projects are aimed at helping inmates to find jobs after they are released and not reoffend, the official said.

“They join activities like jade sculpting, embroidery and paper model making. These projects will enable them to learn skills for survival [after prison],” Li said.

Qingpu prison: the facility at the heart of Tesco’s forced labour scandal

The wages inmates earn from prison labour can be withdrawn when they are released, or used while in prison to buy toiletries and necessities or to communicate with relatives, he said.

Qingpu prison holds foreign inmates from 40 countries, according to its website. Li said foreign prisoners’ cultural norms were taken into consideration to ensure they received “humanitarian care”, including being served hamburgers, pizza and spaghetti on Tuesday to celebrate Christmas Eve.

The prison often holds food festivals to encourage inmates from different countries to mix, Li said. “They have different cultural and cuisine habits, but more communication is helpful for them to improve their understanding of China and other countries, and to reduce conflicts between them,” he said.

On Monday, China’s foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang denied the allegations in the British media, saying it had been “made up” by Humphrey.

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

Humphrey said he stood by his story and was not surprised by China’s denial.

“It’s the kind of answer they have given to every allegation of human rights abuses that has ever been mentioned,” he said. “This is really completely to be expected, because nothing except lies ever comes back to the world when any such issue arises.”

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse

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