TED Case Studies

Chinese Prison Labor Trade With The United States

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I. Identification

1. The Issue

The Chinese have exported products manufactured by Chinese prison laborers. The exportation into the United States violates both American law and two bilateral agreements signed by the United States and the People's Republic of China. Many critics characterize the US effort to block the exportation as lackluster. Others point to the moral issue of the Chinese penal system as a justification for the exportation ban.

2. Description

3. Related Cases

Directly Related TED Cases:

There are no cases directly related to Chinese prison labor in the TED Database. (As of the time of the authoring of this case.)

Indirectly Related TED Cases:

China's Three Gorges Dam Project #1

China's Three Gorges Dam Project #2

Chinese Coal and Pollution

Other Interesting TED cases:

Human Body Parts Trade

Mnt.. Everest Tourism

Sydney Olympics and Environment

The Role of Trade in Transmitting the Bubonic Plague

Danish Beer Bottle Laws




4. Draft Author:

James T. Reeves

Note Date: April 7, 1999

II. Legal Clusters

5. Discourse and Status:

DISagreement and it is in progress

6. Forum and Scope:


7. Decision Breadth:

2 Countries are effected by any decisions: China and the United States.

8. Legal Standing:

The legal standing of this issue is concerns US law and two key agreements with the Chinese. (See above)

III. Geographic Clusters

9. Geographic Locations

a. Geographic Domain: ASIA

b. Geographic Site: eastern ASIA

c. Geographic Impact: China and United States

10. Sub-National Factors:


11. Type of Habitat:


IV. Trade Clusters

12. Type of Measure:

Export Ban

13. Direct v. Indirect Impacts:


14. Relation of Trade Measure to Environmental Impact

a. Directly Related to Product: N/A

b. Indirectly Related to Product: N/A

c. Not Related to Product: N/A

d. Related to Process: N/A

15. Trade Product Identification:

Labor intensive-manufactured goods.

16. Economic Data

17. Impact of Trade Restriction:


18. Industry Sector:

Manufactured Goods.

  • The products developed by prison labor are labor intensive goods. Several companies have been implemented in having contractors or sub contractors employ Chinese prison labor and exporting the goods to the United States. Several companies have been implemented in the use of prison laborers.

    One company, Adidas, was accused of having Chinese prisoners produce soccer balls with the Adidas and 1998 World Cup logos on it ("Adidas give football penalty"). After the accusation was made, Adidas canceled all orders of soccer balls from China. The company moved to no longer allow third parties - or subcontractors - in the production of their products in Asia and they would also move all production would be centralized at Adidas Asia-Pacific in Hong Kong ("Adidas give football penalty"). However, after an internal investigation, Adidas discovered that prison labor was not used in the production of the soccer balls ("Adidas-Salomon denies claim"). Adidas does, however, represent a moralistic company, in that it discontinued production of the products when it was believed to be produced by prison laborers.

    In the Guongdong Province of China, the amount of prison laborers has increased from 700 in 1982, to 3,900 in 1995 (The Arizona Republic, 1997; A10). Approximately 80 percent of those prisoners are force to manufacture goods for the international market (The Arizona Republic, 1997; A10). Knit wear factories in Shantou have been indicated in employing subcontractors who use prison laborers to manufacture clothing for Arnold Palmer, Playboy, and Garfield (The Arizona Republic, 1997; A10).

    There is a wide variety of goods that are produced by Chinese prison labor on the international market other than the above products. With 1,114 labor camps employing 1.78 million prison laborers, anything from textiles to fake flowers, from Christmas tree lights to hand tools, auto parts, rosary beads, watchbands, mineral water, and artificial Christmas trees - all these products may have been produced by Chinese prisoners (Roberts, 1997; A1 & (The Arizona Republic, 1997; A10).



    19. Exporters and Importers:

    China and the United States.

    V. Environment Clusters


    20. Environmental Problem Type:


    21. Name, Type, and Diversity of Species

    Name: N/A

    Type: N/A

    Diversity: N/A


    22. Resource Impact and Effect:


    23. Urgency and Lifetime:


    24. Substitutes:


    VI. Other Factors


    25. Culture:

    Americans have cherished the right to speak freely regarding governmental decisions. This right is a large part of the American culture. The Chinese, on the other hand, are not given this right. In this, exists a different cultural aspect that has bearing on this trade dispute.

    The overall opinion of American prison labor is in agreement with the justifications given by the Chinese government: that prison labor benefits both the prisoners and society. Proponents of using American prisoners as a labor force state:

    “America’s growing inmate population could become a national asset as a work force, providing jobs that boost the economy while mitigating tensions in overcrowded facilities and teaching prisoners life skills that will ease their return to society" (Correctional Educational Bulletin).

    The Chinese cite similar reasons for using prison labor. The Chinese feel that by employing prisoners as laborers without pay, it will contribute to the prisoners repayment to society for their crimes (Armour, 1998; 1B).

    Critics of the use of prison labor often draw upon this similarity to show the injustices of prison labor. However, an important distinction can be drawn. In China, there is no due process of the law. In China any person accused of theft or any other misdemeanors can be sentenced up to three years based solely on the decisions of local law enforcement. More importantly, a person in China can be placed into prison for political beliefs that are deemed counterrevolutionary. By an estimate of the US government, there are nearly 3,000 political prisoners in the Chinese penal system.

    The two judicial systems are completely different. The American system based upon the notion of innocent until proven guilty, the Chinese based upon the opposite.

    26. Trans-Boundary Issues:


    27. Rights:

    Basic human rights are not respected in China, especially prisoners' rights. It is appalling the extent that the Chinese do not respect the basic human rights of their citizens and prisoners. Palden Gyatso, a Tibetan monk who was imprisoned for 30 years, provides many horrible stories of how awful and cruel the Chinese penal system is. In a speech in Hartford, Connecticut, he describes how the prisoners are deprived of eating edible food and after working for nine hours straight, the prisoners are reduced to eating grass, leaves, insects, and rats. On at least one occasion, Gysato explains, he ate his leather shoes and shared the scraps with his fellow prisoners (Dee, 1996; B9)

    In addition, Gyatso describes how some prisoners who remained silent during interrogations were put through unspeakable humiliation and torture. Their hands would be tied behind their backs and hung from the ceiling. Meanwhile, a fire would be lit beneath their feet and boiling water would be poured over their heads - causing their skin to blister and peel. Other prisoners would be subjected to electric shock treatment without medical attention, and would be forced to work the next day. For the prisoners who were to be executed, they would be humiliated before their death and a bill for the rope and bullet used would be sent to their relatives for payment (Dee, 1996; B9).

    It is essential when debating the issue of importing prisoner made goods from China that one understand the cruelties within the Chinese penal system. This is not a human system. The prisoners are tortured, murdered, and are forced to do labor. The United States simply should not accept products made by people in such an inhumane manner.

    28. Relevant Literature

    ABC Nightline. "American Business and Chinese Prison Labor Camps." ABC News. May 21, 1997. 11:35 ET.

    Armour, Stephanie. "Prison labor shackled with complaints." USA TODAY. October 20, 1998. Page 1B

    The Arizona Republic. "Spotlight Focused on the Chinese Prison Labor." The Arizona Republic. May 22, 1997. Pg. A10

    Blustein, Paul. "Prison Labor: Can U.S. Point Finger at China? American Inmates Manufacture Products, But Trade Debate Centers on Beijing's Policies." The Washington Post. June 3, 1997. Pg. C01.

    China Diesel Imports, Inc v. The United States. United States Court of International Trade. June 4, 1996.*

    Cockburn, Alexander. "Tough Talk To China masks Selfish Ends; The Credentials of the Trade-or-Die Model Are Looking More Wretched By The Day." Los Angeles Times. March 4, 1999. Part B; Page 9

    Correctional Educational Bulletin. "Groups Urge Private Sector To View Prison Industries as Teaching Tool; Legislation Could Change Prison Labor Market." Correctional Educational Bulletin. July, 1998: Vol 1, No. 10.

    Customs Duties. Title 19, Chapter I, United States Customs Service, Dept. Of the Treasury, Part 12 - Special Classes of Merchandise: merchandise Produced By Convict, Forced, or Indentured Labor.*

    Dee, Jane. Tibetan Buddhist Monk Details Horrors of Imprisonment In Chinese Jails, Camps." The Hartford Courant. June 20, 1996. Pg. B9

    Helms, Jesse. "Testimony May 21, 1997. Jesse Helms, Senator, Senate Foreign Relations. China Prison Labor Agreements." Federal Document Clearing House Congressional Testimony. May 21, 1997*

    "Adidas gives football penalty." Financial Times. July 2, 1998. London Edition. Pg. 08

    "Adidas-Salomon denies claim." Financial Times. August 20, 1998. London Edition.Pg. 05

    Hirsch, David J. "Guilt-Free Imports From China" The Plain Dealer. June 26, 1997. Pg. 11B

    Kleingberg, Howard. "Will the US ever stand up to China?" The Tampa Tribune. January 8, 1995. Pg. 6

    Roberts, William. "China trade debate puts focus on prison labor exports to US." Journal of Commerce. May 23, 1997. Pg. 1A

    Simon, William and Robert Weisberg. "Prison Labor in China And U.S. Trade Policy." The San Francisco Chronicle. May 13, 1994. Pg. A21

    State Department. "Chinese Prison Labor Exports Fact sheet released by the Bureau of Public Affairs." <"http://www.state.gov/www/regions/eap/fs-china_prison_exp_970617.html"> U.S. Department of State. June 17, 1997.

    "US Companies Accused Of Importing Goods Made By Chinese Prison Labor." The White House Bulletin. May 21, 1997.

    WHITFIELD v. OHIO. United States Supreme Court. March 2, 1936.*

    * = Sources were found on the Lexis Nexis search engine, hard copies could not be obtained.