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Supermarket Holiday Card Found With Message Allegedly From Prisoner In China


Six-year-old Florence Widdicombe of South London was writing holiday cards to her classmates when she discovered one already had a handwritten message inside it. The message read we are foreign prisoners in Shanghai Qingpu Prison China forced to work against our will.

The card came from the British supermarket chain Tesco. In a statement yesterday, Tesco said they, quote, "abhor the use of prison labor" and have suspended production at a company where the cards are produced while they investigate the allegations. British journalist Peter Humphrey was himself imprisoned at Shanghai Qingpu four years ago after being accused of illegally obtaining personal information of Chinese citizens. He is on the line with us now from Surrey. Welcome.


CHANG: So how did you first hear about this peculiar story about this message for help inside a Tesco holiday card?

HUMPHREY: Right. Well, I received a LinkedIn message from a man called Ben Widdicombe. He told me one of his family had opened a card with a message written in it from China. And it required him or whoever found this card to send it on to me. I spoke to him on the phone and asked him to send me a snapshot. And when I saw what was written in the note, I was quite struck because this note resembled the handwriting of a prisoner I knew in Qingpu prison.


HUMPHREY: The content of the note was credible because I know that they are being forced to work in that prison.

CHANG: So you were at this prison four years ago. Can you just give us an idea of what it's like in there?

HUMPHREY: It is a massive campus with military-style fortress walls and watchtowers. Guarded on the perimeter are the People's Armed Police, which is a paramilitary force. There are about 15 cellblocks, and there is about 2,500 prisoners now. But there were about 2,000 when I was there. And there are now 220 or so to 250 foreign prisoners.

CHANG: And was forced labor a part of life inside Qingpu while you were in there?

HUMPHREY: Forced labor was a part of life for Chinese prisoners while I was there in Chinese cellblocks. In the small foreigners cellblock, labor was voluntary, but in the last 18 months, the information that I've been receiving from prisoners who were released in the last year or so has been telling me that in the foreigner block they're now being forced to work through several coercion tools.

CHANG: Now, the Chinese printing company that makes these cards for Tesco has denied using forced labor. And the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Geng Shuang, spoke to the press today, and he denied foreign prisoners are being forced to work at Shanghai Qingpu Prison. So - in fact, he said that this story is a farce, that you - you, Peter Humphrey - created it. How do you respond to that?

HUMPHREY: The claim made by the printing company that it's not engaging prison labor might stand up because it's possible that they have subcontracted some work.

CHANG: It might not have visibility as to whether these cards are being made by forced labor.

HUMPHREY: It's possible because there are many, many layers to supply chains in China.

CHANG: Sure.

HUMPHREY: But this reaction from the foreign ministry today was also interesting because there was a very personalized attack on me. I did not invent the little girl in London and her father. I never even knew them. They found me. I did not invent or fabricate the message written in the Christmas card. I went back to some of the prisoners who have now been released from Qingpu in the past year or so and asked them, what did they see in the form of work for Tesco? And I didn't tell them why I was asking, and I didn't tell them what I had in my hands. But they then described the packaging of these Christmas cards very accurately. And it matched what I was holding in my hands.

CHANG: Yeah.

HUMPHREY: So I knew I had a genuine story here. So to say I'm fabricating something, he knows that is totally untrue. And it is a very foolish statement.

CHANG: That is journalist Peter Humphrey. He joined us via Skype. Thank you very much for joining us today.

HUMPHREY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.