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China's Trade Secrets

July 28, 1991

Nowhere in the article is it explained why using prison labor to produce goods for export is objectionable. Is it because the prisoners are being used as a source of cheap labor and are having their rights violated? But the average Chinese earns less than a dollar a day anyway; they are all cheap labor!

The question posed by Rep. Wolf ("How would the average American feel to learn that he was wearing socks made by a Tian An Men demonstrator?") simply confuses the issues. Of course the average American is saddened by the imprisonment of those demonstrators. Likewise with the description of the conditions under which Chui Feng worked. These are quite different issues than the question of whether the Chinese should use prison labor to produce goods. What is really at stake is money. American businessmen stand to lose money as cheaply produced Chinese exports flood this country. Focusing on the manner in which Chinese goods are produced is nothing but a transparent attempt to cloak a basically economic concern in moral terms.

RONG R. WANG

Los Angeles

Jeff Greenwald replies: Asia Watch explains the objection to the laogai-dui this way: "In human-rights terms, prison labor per se is not necessarily abusive.... In the case of China, however, prison labor has an extremely abusive character."

As our story indicated, many Chinese inmates are sentenced without fair trials and are subject to torture and abusive punishment. Additionally, prisoners generally receive no pay for their labor and work for profit-making state enterprises--Chinese prison labor is not analogous to making license plates in U.S. prisons.

When Mr. Wang says that the influx of cheap Chinese goods hurts American businessmen, he has it backward. In fact, the ability to cut costs by buying cheaply manufactured goods from China helps American businessmen. Those who suffer are American laborers, and it was to protect them that the laws proscribing prison-labor imports were put on the books.

In principle, there is nothing wrong with convict labor. But when prisoners are denied rights, forced to help finance the regime that oppresses them and used to produce goods that are imported in violation of U.S. law, the issue becomes more complex.

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