Chinese blind legal activist, Chen Guangcheng, is calling on China to end forced labor in its prison system, where inmates produce goods ranging from Christmas lights to chopsticks. As a campaigner he has advocated for farmers, disabled citizens, and exposed forced abortions under China’s one-child policy, making his work particularly sensitive to the government.
Thomson Reuters Foundation interviewed Guangcheng at the Trust Conference this week, where he talked about the growing problem of forced labor in prisons:
In 2006, when Chen was jailed for four years on what he said were trumped up charges, he discovered prisoners were being forced to work for up 16 hours a day to make various products and tortured if they did not work hard enough.
Since then Chen has added the battle against forced labour in China’s massive “prison factories” to his list of causes, saying he feared the human rights situation in China was “growing worse” and calling for action.
According to the 2016 Global Slavery Index, an estimated 3.4 million people are enslaved in China. The country denies the existence of forced labor but Guangcheng and other activists point to the prison system where inmates “reform through labor.” The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a congressional commission of the U.S. government, noted this August that China still relies on forced labor in its prisons.
Guangcheng, who because he is blind was not forced into manual labor, recalls that when he was in jail “the cries of people being beaten become a common background noise.”