The BBC reporter, Sue Lloyd- Roberts, visited one of China's prison Gulags in Xinjiang province, accompanied by Henry Wu, a former prison inmate who is an outspoken critic of the prison system. Ms Lloyd-Roberts used Mr Wu's estimate that China has 10 million prisoners, and quoted people as saying leather jackets made by prisoners, and cotton raised by them, is sold abroad. China does not deny that its prisoners are required to work, but it insists their output is not exported.
Similar conditions are outlined by a report published today by Human Rights Watch/Asia, the independent New York-based organisation. The 60-page report, The Price of Obscurity in China, demonstrates just how far China is from making the 'overall significant progress' on human rights that President Bill Clinton's executive order demands if the country's Most Favoured Nation (MFN) trading status is to be renewed on 3 June.
It names around 500 people who, unknown until now, were jailed in the wake of the June 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement for alleged political or criminal offences. Of these, some 220 are still in prison, including about 50 'counter-revolutionary' political prisoners serving long sentences in grim conditions at Peking No 2 Prison, where they are routinely subjected to punishments including electric shocks. The rest were convicted for criminal offences, mostly violence against property, and are held at Qinghe Farm, a forced-labour camp outside Peking. The report confirms how prison-labour goods are still being exported to the US, in contravention of mandatory MFN conditions.
Robin Munro of HRW/Asia said the past year had seen 'overall significant deterioration' in China's human rights and it was impossible for Mr Clinton to argue that his conditions had been met. However, he added: 'No one wants to see MFN cancelled, but there are other things Clinton can do to signal progress has not been made.'
HRW/Asia is calling for a 5-10 per cent tariff hike on all Chinese goods entering the US, to show 'firm intent' that Peking must pay for failing to meet human rights requirements.
In the past three weeks, Peking's MFN strategy has been to release two high profile prisoners, Wang Juntao and Chen Ziming, who were both serving 13-year sentences as the alleged 'black hands' behind the Tiananmen Square movement, in the expectation that this will give Mr Clinton the excuse to renew MFN unconditionally.
At the same time, however, rather than easing off ahead of the MFN decision, since January this year the Chinese government has instigated a crackdown. Religious believers have been rounded up, Tibetans imprisoned, labour activists and political dissidents in Peking and Shanghai arrested or harassed.
The top leaders say social stability must be maintained at any cost, a message that is being trumpeted ahead of next month's fifth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Last week, in a rare reference to June 1989, President Jiang Zemin said the crushing of the movement by the army had been correct. 'Without the resolute measures taken then, China would not have enjoyed today's stability,' he said. The government's hardline approach comes as social pressures intensify; inflation, corruption, widespread worker unrest, and the widening wealth gap are all creating dissatisfaction among those who have lagged behind in China's fast- stream modernisation.
In that context, and with China emerging as an economic superpower that cannot be ignored, the government has decided to call Mr Clinton's bluff over MFN.
There are two mandatory MFN conditions: freedom of emigration and the banning of prison-made goods from the US. In the first case, a number of dissidents or their family members are still being denied exit visas. In the second, today's report cites yet another example of prison goods apparently destined for the US. A company advertisement for the latex gloves that are checked by inmates at Peking No 2 Prison boasts how the gloves meet US manufacturing standards. In September last year, Shi Xuezhi, 53, serving a 16-year sentence at the prison as a counter-revolutionary, tried to insert a note into a package of latex gloves for export hoping to expose forced-labour products. For this he was put in solitary confinement, and beaten with electric batons. The Qinghe Commodities Sales Department, owned by Qinghe Farm, similarly appears to be almost exclusively involved in exporting goods such as clothing and sportswear. (Photograph omitted)