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Human rights advocate claims Chinese prison goods on sale in U.S.

May 21, 1997

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A human rights campaigner who was a Chinese prisoner for 19 years told senators today he has proof that U.S. companies are selling illegally imported Chinese prison goods.

Harry Wu said the products included office supplies, clothing with prestigious labels, auto parts built especially for American cars, and even Christmas items that would have no market in China.

On Tuesday, Wu accused the Clinton administration of ignoring the problem and cooperating with ``pathological liars″ _ the Chinese officials who held him prisoner for for nearly two decades. He is now a U.S. citizen and head of Laogai Research Foundation, dedicated to exposing China’s system of forced-labor prisons.

``The Chinese government views the prisoners as simply a production unit″ in its Laogai system, he said in an interview.

Addressing Wu’s charges before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, officials of the Treasury and State departments spoke today of a mixed response from China to U.S. authorities trying to determine whether goods from the laogai system were transported to the United States.

U.S. law prohibits importing goods made by convict labor. China has denied it exports prison-made products, and George J. Weise, Customs commissioner, said no ``smoking gun″ evidence has been found of such exports.

``We simply do not have the tools within our present arsenal at Customs to gain the timely and in-depth verification that we need. Presently, we believe that we are only seeing part of the picture,″ he said.

Jeffrey Bader, a deputy assistant secretary of state, said Customs officials have formally asked permission to visit 20 facilities suspected of exporting convict labor products but have been allowed so far to visit only 13. He noted, however, recent signs of improved cooperation from the Chinese.

Wu’s latest allegations came two days after President Clinton announced he will renew China’s most-favored-nation trade status. Allegations of human rights abuses, including forced labor, are being raised by opponents in the congressional debate over whether to reject Clinton’s decision.

Interviewed at a temporary office in Washington, Wu displayed binder clips distributed by an American company, Officemate International of Edison, N.J., and showed a photograph he said was of a truckload of the clips being hauled away from a Chinese prison.

A call to the Officemate headquarters was answered by a man who identified himself as the shipping manager. He was told of the accusations, declined to comment but said he would have his boss return a call from a reporter. He also declined to identify his boss, who had not called back by late Tuesday.

Wu said the clips were hand-assembled by Chinese female prisoners, with the supplier paying about 2 cents for every 12 dozen clips. He estimated that over $1 million worth of ``Laogai clips″ are imported into the United States each year.

In addition to the clips, Wu displayed a made-in-China cast iron auto part, which he said was manufactured by prisoners. He showed prison system publications, photographs and invoices he said proved that convicts were being forced to manufacture items specifically for U.S. automobiles.

Wu also showed sport shirts with Playboy, Esprit and Arnold Palmer labels. He said his organization, using a false name, had ordered 500 dozen such shirts from a company that received its goods from a prison in Guangdong province. The company had sent the samples, and all that would have been needed to complete the order was a letter of credit, he said.

Wu said he did not believe Americans would buy such items if they knew they were manufactured by forced labor in China _ particularly not Christmas lights, which he said dissidents have witnessed being made in prisons.

Wu came to Washington following a visit to Detroit on Tuesday, where he accused Kmart Corp. of selling products made by a company owned by China’s communist army. He told executives at the company’s annual meeting that the retailer purchased 73 tons of ponchos and rain parkas from the Chinese company last year, in violation of its own policy.

Kmart Chairman Floyd Hall told Wu the company would investigate his allegations. Company spokeswoman Shawn Kahle later said Kmart would sever ties with the Chinese company if it found it was owned by the army.

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