BEIJING: China on Monday (Dec 23) denied allegations that prisoners were being used for forced labour, after a British newspaper reported that a London schoolgirl found a message in a Christmas card claiming to be from inmates at Shanghai's Qingpu Prison.
Supermarket giant Tesco said at the weekend it had stopped production at a factory in China after one of its charity cards was found to contain a cry for help from a prisoner who made it, according to the Sunday Times newspaper.
But Beijing rebuffed the claims, which it said were "made up".
"I can tell you responsibly that, after seeking clarification from relevant departments, Shanghai Qingpu prison does not at all have ... forced labour by foreign convicts," said foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang at a regular press briefing in Beijing.
Geng also attacked former journalist Peter Humphrey who wrote the article and said he had invented a "farce" to "hype himself up". Humphrey was himself detained in Qinqpu prison until 2015.
The note written in the card asked the person who found it to contact Humphrey, which the schoolgirl's father did. Humphrey then took the story to the Sunday Times.
"We are foreign prisoners in Shanghai Qingpu Prison China," said the message, in a charity card featuring a kitten in a Santa hat
"Forced to work against our will. Please help us and notify human rights organisation."
Humphrey wrote in the Sunday Times that he was jailed on "bogus charges that were never heard in court", and said the note-writers were certainly "Qingpu prisoners who knew me before my release."
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".
But this is in stark contrast to what former inmates say of their experiences in China's notoriously opaque prison system.
Humphrey said he contacted fellow ex-prisoners after being contacted by the girl's family.
One of them said that for at least two years inmates in the foreign prisoner unit had picked designs and then packaged the Tesco cards, sealing the boxes and putting them into shipping cartons.
International companies are coming under mounting pressure to ensure their business in China does not involve any abuse of human rights.
Tesco - which is Britain's largest retailer and the world's third-biggest supermarket chain - said Sunday it "would never allow (prison labour) in our supply chain."
NOTHING EXCEPT LIES
Contacted by AFP for his response on China's statement, Humphrey - who is now based in Britain - said: "It's the kind of answer they have given to every allegation of human rights abuses that is ever mentioned.
"This is really completely to be expected, because nothing except lies ever comes back to the world when any such issue arises," he said.
He told AFP he had never met the girl or her family, but when they got in touch and showed him a copy of the note, "I absolutely knew it was true, in my gut, because I know the handwriting."
He would not name the author for fear of repercussions, but noted it was not the first time prisoners in China had got a message out this way.
"It's too dangerous for them to use correspondence, phone calls or consular meetings" to raise concerns about conditions, he said.
Humphrey said he did not hold Tesco responsible if it were found to have used prison labour.
"China makes it impossible for a company to drill down right to the bottom of the supply chain to identify the small contractors," he said.
And he said he believed the prisoners involved were working against their will.
"They don't mean that they are chained to a factory table and whipped. What they mean is that they have been put in a position where they are coerced," he said.
Humphrey said he had heard from former prisoners that in the last 12-18 months, the jail had blocked remittances from families for inmates' daily necessities like toiletries.
"They blocked that as a way to try and force the prisoners to work in the labour production, where they can earn £10 to £12 (US$13 to US$15) worth of renminbi per month," he said.
He added that a merit system allowing prisoners to shave time off their sentences, for example by working or studying, was now open only to those prepared to do labour.