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Ivanka Trump and her shoes, thousands of which are produced in China

The story of a missing man, a Chinese factory & Ivanka Trump

While investigating the conditions of a factory in China linked to Trump’s clothing line, a human rights worker has disappeared – we investigate

Last Thursday, Hua Haifeng was stopped at the Chinese border to Hong Kong. Hua Haifeng is an investigator for China Labour Watch, an NGO based out of New York City. He was told to call the police in Shenzhen, who asked him to come in for questioning. When he complied, the police told him they knew that he’d been investigating the Huajian factory in Dongguan, an industrial city in the Guangdong region some 50 miles up the Pearl River from Hong Kong. The next day, when he was released from custody, he travelled up to Ganzhou, where Huajin has another factory. It is there that he disappeared.

A human rights activist going missing in China sadly isn’t news. But what has propelled Hua’s story to international attention is the fact that Huajian produces hundreds of thousands of shoes for Ivanka Trump. China Labour Watch was about to release a report saying that standards at the Huajian factory were poor and didn’t conform to Chinese law, with workers putting in shifts that lasted at least 12 and a half hours for pay below the minimum wage. A monthly salary was estimated at roughly $1 a day. There were also allegations of the misuse of student intern labour, and of managers verbally abusing staff. Hua had actually been attempting to travel to Hong Kong to meet with journalists and give further testimony for the report.

As Aaron Halegua, an independent consultant and researcher at the NYU School of Law’s US Asia Law Institute, told Dazed, “It is common practice in China’s apparel sector for employees to work 60 or more hours per week, despite the fact that this violates many brands’ code of conduct and the nation’s own labour laws. Unfortunately, low wages, a failure to pay social insurance, and unsafe working conditions are not the exception but the norm.”

He also quoted from a 2015 report put out by the Fair Labour Association, a non-profit based in Washington DC which inspected 39 workplaces in China. At least one health and safety violation was found in each factory.

It’s clear, therefore, that while Huajian was in violation of the law, these practices are fairly standard across the industry. Regardless, it would appear that Ivanka made no particular effort to check whether her supplier was culpable for shoddy labour practices, and thus far has not responded to any media comments about the recent arrests of the labour activists who sought to expose them (putting aside the fact that Ivanka using poorly regulated labour in China somewhat undermines her father’s argument about American Jobs First). 

The Trumps have been doing well in China. President Trump has 77 registered trademarks in the country, and 39 with preliminary approval given since he took office. Ivanka has also seen a trademark windfall through her trademarking company Ivanka Trump Marks LLC. At the same time, a real-estate company looking for investors for a project headed by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, was caught peddling its ties to the president and ability to secure prized EB-5 visas for investors at a conference in Beijing. It seems easy to connect the dots, as a lot of recent media reports have, and say that the disappearance of Hua, and of two other China Labour Watch investigators working on the project, Li Zhao and Su Heng, is indicative of the preferential treatment that Beijing is rolling out for the Trumps.

“The head of China Labour Watch has been explicit in making this connection, noting that in late April they sent a letter to Ivanka Trump detailing abuses in the factory”

Head of China Labour Watch Li Qiang has been explicit in making this connection, noting that in late April they sent a letter to Ivanka Trump detailing abuses in the factory, and that in 17 years of conducting this kind of work, he had never had any of his investigators taken by the government. In response to claims that the Jiangxi police was holding the investigators due to specific violations of the labour code, such as using their phones, he said, “They are just looking for an excuse.”

However, it’s worth remembering that, even without the Trump connection, labour rights activists have been coming under increasing pressure from the Chinese government in the past few years. “There has often been a separation between different types of human rights advocacy in China and certainly labour rights advocacy was much more tolerated until recently,” Dr Eva Pils, a transnational law scholar at King’s College in London, told Dazed, “but there has been a massive shift in how labour rights activists have been treated in the past few years under Xi Jinping – it’s worsened, and this has been part of a much wider trend that has seen increasing pressure on advocacy groups and wider civil society.”

A pertinent example is what happened to activists from the Panyu Workers’ Centre. Meng Han, Zeng Feiyang, Zhu Xiaomei and Tang Huanxing were all apprehended at various points in 2015. Meng Han was taken on December 3, 2015 and prevented from seeing a lawyer until Ferbruary 19. He was later denied access to a lawyer on April 7. His family was harassed constantly while he was detained in an attempt to force him to provide information about his colleagues. In the end all four were convicted, with Meng being given a 21-month suspended sentence. It is likely he will be under surveillance for the foreseeable future, with his movements and contacts carefully monitored.

“There are so many reasons to be worried about someone who has been taken in these circumstances,” said Dr Pils. As both Human Rights Watch and the UN Committee Against Torture (CAT) have noted, the use of torture is still rife in China. Dr Pils describes some of techniques used more recently as “novel and scary”, and in her own work she has come across human rights lawyers who have been forcibly medicated, and others who have returned with severe mental health issues, including schizophrenia.

“There has been a massive shift in how labour rights activists have been treated in the past few years under Xi Jinping – it’s worsened” – Dr Eva Pils

In 2015, China arrested or detained 248 human rights lawyers and activists. It started in the early hours of the July 9, when prominent human rights lawyer Wang Yu went missing. Wang is famous for her defence of Ilham Tohti, an advocate for China’s Uighur ethnic minority who was given a life sentence for inciting separatism in 2014. Li Heping, another lawyer caught in the crackdown, made his name defending Christians, Falun Gong adherents, well-known dissident and human rights attorney Gao Zhisheng and blind activist Chen Guangcheng. The message from the CCP is clear – trying to use the law to defend people the Party has deemed unfavourable is a surefire way to be deemed unfavourable. This means that, in the case of the China Labour Watch investigators, finding adequate counsel to take the now high-profile case is going to be difficult.

Information about how disappearances work or what the experience is like is thin on the ground, but a number of prominent cases in recent years have shed some light on this dark practice. Peter Dahlin, a Swedish human rights activist who was detained by the CCP in 2016 for a little under a month in a ‘black jail’ – an unmarked prison whose location is not publicly disclosed – and forced to record a televised confession, sat for a long interview with the Guardian in which he detailed his ordeal. According to the article, Dahlin “was blindfolded and confined to a cell with expressionless guards who refused to engage in conversation but noted down his every move; was for days deprived of access to his embassy, the right to exercise or even to sunlight; was forced to endure exhausting late-night interrogation sessions conducted by hectoring inquisitors determined to paint him as a spy; subjected to a lie-detection machine intended to extract information about his work; and suffered periods of sleep deprivation that he believes were intended to weaken his resolve”.

His time in what he euphemistically referred to as “the residence” tallies somewhat with Ai Weiwei’s experience. The dissident artist was famously held for over three months in 2011 for reported tax evasion. He told the New York Times after his release that he had been “watched 24 hours a day by shifts of two uniformed military police sergeants who never left his side” and that “they stayed there as he slept, showered and used the bathroom”. Ai later turned this experience into the installation SACRED, which featured six 5x12ft boxes, each weighing nearly 2.5 tonnes, and showed in minute detail scenes from his detention, including guards standing inches away from him while he used the bathroom.

That these techniques can be meted out against foreign nationals and Chinese with the kind of international presence that Ai Weiwei has does not bode well for Hua Haifeng and the other China Labour Watch investigators. Whether or not their detention is directly related to Ivanka Trump or they are just caught up in the wider crackdown on labour rights activists, it’s worth keeping in mind what the China Labour Watch investigators and their families are currently going through. As Halegua told Dazed, “Hopefully, Ivanka or international brands purchasing from the factories will use whatever influence they have to encourage their release.”