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China Watchdog: China’s Arrest of Activists Investigating Ivanka Trump-linked Factory Unprecedented

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China is refusing to release three activists who were arrested while they were investigating labor conditions at a factory manufacturing Ivanka Trump brand shoes. The three men were working with the New York-based nonprofit China Labor Watch. The arrests came just weeks after Ivanka Trump secured three new exclusive trademarks in China. China accuses the investigators of interfering with the operation of the factory. China Labor Watch denies the allegations and says this is the first time in nearly two decades of its existence that any of its investigators have been detained. Amnesty International has joined in demanding the release of the trio. To talk more about what this means, we are joined in Washington, D.C., by Kevin Slaten, who was program coordinator for China Labor Watch until last year.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in China, which is refusing to release three activists who were arrested while they were investigating labor conditions at a factory manufacturing Ivanka Trump brand shoes. The three men were working with the New York-based nonprofit China Labor Watch. The group was reportedly planning to release a report next month revealing factory workers at the supplier, Huajian International, were forced to work excessive overtime, verbally abused and paid wages below China’s legal minimum.

China accuses the three investigators with using illegal surveillance equipment and interfering with the operation of the factory. China Labor Watch denies the allegations and says this is the first time in nearly two decades of its existence that any of its investigators have been detained and faced criminal charges. Amnesty International has joined in demanding the release of the trio. On Monday, China rejected a State Department request to free the men, its statement that also marked the first time the government has confirmed their detention. This is China’s Foreign Office spokesperson.

HUA CHUNYING: [translated] The people you mentioned were summoned and investigated on suspicion of interfering with the company’s normal operations and production activities. Public security officials also found they were in illegal possession of and under suspicion of using wiretapping or other professional surveillance equipment. Those people were detained in accordance with the law, and the case remains under investigation.

AMY GOODMAN: The Ivanka Trump company has declined to comment on the case. The arrests came just weeks after Ivanka Trump secured three new exclusive trademarks in China—the very same day she and her father, President Trump, had dinner with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Trump’s private resort in Florida. Ivanka has also recently filed numerous additional Chinese trademark applications. According to The Wall Street Journal, 14 applications were filed by her business on March 28th, a day before she was named White House adviser. Her company has said the applications were filed to prevent others from profiting from her name rather than as an attempt to boost sales in China. Ivanka Trump no longer manages her $50 million company, but she retains an ownership stake, so she can still benefit from the company’s profits. It was not Ivanka Trump herself that filed for the trademarks in China, but it was the company.

To talk more about what this means, we’re joined in Washington, D.C., by Kevin Slaten, who was program coordinator for China Labor Watch until last year. He knew the three investigators currently detained in China, and has researched Chinese labor conditions for over seven years, continuing to monitor closely human rights and foreign policy developments in China.

Kevin, welcome to Democracy Now! Where are these three investigators? These three human rights activists investigating labor conditions at the Ivanka Trump brand factory, where are they being held?

KEVIN SLATEN: Hi, Amy. Currently, the three, according to information we have from one of the investigators’ lawyers, who spoke to the media a couple days ago, as well as according to other news media, they’re being held in Ganzhou, which is in Jiangxi province, which is in southern part of China. And that’s where the investigation, one of the factories that they were investigating, is located.

AMY GOODMAN: And under what conditions are they being held?

KEVIN SLATEN: I mean, a lot of that information isn’t really known. We know, from what the lawyers said, that they were being held in—that one of the people was being held in a group cell of 20 people, that he had to sleep just a couple feet away from a urinal—they said a bucket that people would use as a urinal, and he had to sleep like that. And it was very—said it was very uncomfortable. I mean, one of the overarching problems here is that a lot of access is being denied, and China doesn’t really have a—it has a terrible record of guaranteeing prisoners’ rights and of torture, especially for people who could be political prisoners, like these three.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you explain, Kevin Slaten, where this factory is, what it does, how you know, then how these researchers knew, that it was making Ivanka Trump brand shoes?

KEVIN SLATEN: Well, just to be clear, I left China Labor Watch early last year, in February 2016, so I wasn’t part of the investigation. However, I know, from what I’ve read and some communication recently with China Labor Watch, that they sent people undercover. These three investigators, I don’t know if all of them were undercover, but at least one of them was undercover. They were doing worker interviews outside of the factory and gathering other information around two factories that they, through worker interviews and—I haven’t seen video or pictures, but typically you would get video and pictures to prove it. The report hasn’t come out yet, so I don’t—I don’t know from the report if they got that information. But typically that’s how you would show that the products that you were—that you were—like Ivanka Trump’s products and other brands were actually being produced there. However, Marc Fisher, the company Marc Fisher, which is the intermediary for Ivanka Trump’s production, did not deny that their products are being made there. Ivanka Trump’s company didn’t deny they’re being made there. So, I think that’s not really a question of whether or not they’re being made in those factories.

AMY GOODMAN: The Chinese government said, in the SOT that we—in the quote that we just played, that these men are being held under suspicion of using wiretapping or professional surveillance equipment.

KEVIN SLATEN: Mm-hmm, yeah, this is the—what’s been said by the Foreign Ministry. It’s also what the actual—the official charges, at least for one person. Only one person, we know about their actual charge. It’s extremely unusual that in the context of labor investigations in China—as somebody who’s been involved in this for many years and also knows many people who had actually done these investigations in China, it’s extremely unusual to actually bring this charge against somebody. In fact, it’s unprecedented.

These sorts of investigations are not unusual in China, the undercover—whether it’s undercover investigations or just asking workers into the labor conditions connected to global supply chains. As China Labor Watch has said to media, and I think you mentioned this, for almost two decades, they’ve done hundreds of these investigations. And this sort of national-level reaction by the government is unprecedented. And it suggests something beyond just the investigations that they say they’ve arrested these individuals for. And it’s—there’s something unusual about this. You know, we can surmise that it might have something to do with Ivanka Trump’s products, but we don’t have direct evidence of that currently.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what does the State Department—interestingly, the State Department, under President Trump—what is it doing to have these men released?

KEVIN SLATEN: Well, I only know, I think, what you may know from what the State Department has said, that it made a statement calling for the release and calling for the guarantee of their legal rights, or the protection of their legal rights. And that was quickly dismissed by China’s government. Other than that, behind the scenes, I’m unclear about what they may be doing.

I do think that the statement might have had an effect, because the lawyer who was denied access repeatedly to Hua Haifeng, one of the investigators, was given access shortly after it was reported, and was given a good amount of time to talk to him. So, it does matter when the U.S. government says something. And even more, it matters when the buyers of these companies say something.

In the past, it’s not unusual for local governments—now, I talked about all these investigations that have occurred in the past. It’s not unusual for local governments to have some—to retaliate in some way towards investigators, but that retaliation is usually a slap on the wrist, kicking them out of the city, you know, firing—making sure they’re out of the factories so they’re not revealing more information. But some of the reaction that’s been taken—denying access to lawyers, denying access to family, not notifying family, blocking them from leaving the country days before they were even arrested, apparently—this is—this shows that this is a national-level, coordinated political case.

And the State Department comments, the U.S. government commenting on this, and the companies that may be at the center of this, particularly Ivanka Trump’s company and Ivanka Trump herself, commenting on this, in a way to call for the protection of the rights of these investigators, is extremely important and could really have a dramatic effect on their treatment.

AMY GOODMAN: I’d like to go back to Ivanka Trump speaking in April. She was interviewed about potential conflicts of interest by Gayle King on CBS’s This Morning.

GAYLE KING: When we talk about the Ivanka Trump brand, you are no longer running the day-to-day.

IVANKA TRUMP: No, I’m no longer—

GAYLE KING: What have you done with your business?

IVANKA TRUMP: I have no involvement with any of it. And I felt like proximity to my father and to the White House and with my husband taking such an influential role in the administration, I didn’t want to also be running a business. So, I put it into trust. I have independent trustees. I have no involvement in its management, in its oversight, in its strategic decision-making.

GAYLE KING: But the trustees are family members, right? Your brother-in-law and your sister-in-law?

IVANKA TRUMP: They are.

GAYLE KING: So, from a—

IVANKA TRUMP: But they’re completely independent, and I’m transparent about that.

GAYLE KING: Can you see, from the public point of view—yes, you put it in trust, but it’s family members—they’re thinking, “Well, is she really not involved?” Do you really not get on the phone and say, “What’s going on?” Do you have no involvement whatsoever?

IVANKA TRUMP: I take—I take a legal document very seriously, and I wouldn’t go through the pains of setting this up, if I intended to violate it.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that is Ivanka Trump. Your response, Kevin Slaten, talking about her company that’s now run by her brother-in-law and sister-in-law?

KEVIN SLATEN: Right. I think that it’s extremely—well, at the time, she wasn’t responding to this. It would be extremely disingenuous if she uses that as protection, personal protection here, to disassociate herself with the human rights—the serious human rights violation and labor rights violations going on in her supply chain. Whether or not she’s directly involved with the management, she is benefiting from the profits of this company. This company is using her name. And she’ll benefit even more after she leaves office, whenever that happens.

Let’s talk about the facts that we do know. Huajian, this company that is at the center of this, the factory that’s at the center of this in China, according to reports, produces something like 100,000 to 200,000 Ivanka Trump shoes per year. It’s the third largest—a third of Ivanka Trump’s orders come from this company every year. They’ve been working with them, reportedly, for 10 years, which means, based on my experience in this field, that makes them a strategic supplier. They are not a new supplier. This isn’t a one-off. This is a long-term partner, which means that they’re at the center of their business and supply chain in China. And according to reports, they were producing up to this year, including in May, when these investigations—at least the preliminary investigation ended.

So, there is a direct association with Ivanka Trump’s company, and therefore Ivanka Trump, especially because she’s still profiting off of these, with the three investigators and their arrests and the labor violations that they were investigating, the widespread labor violations, that we now are starting to get information about. So, I think that if she did respond in that, whatever legal protection—or legal separation she has from the management of her company, if she were to use that response, it would be extremely disingenuous and unethical.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask about—well, according to The Wall Street Journal, 14 applications were filed by her business on March 28th, the day before she was named White House adviser. Ivanka Trump’s company has said the applications were filed to prevent others from profiting from her name, rather than as an attempt to boost sales in China. And The Wall Street Journal points out Ivanka no longer manages the $50 million company but retains an ownership stake, so she can benefit from the company’s profits. You have—

KEVIN SLATEN: Well, talk about disingenuous.

AMY GOODMAN: So you have both those trademarks. And then talk about the dinner, where her daughter sang in Chinese to the first Chinese family. She had dinner with the Chinese president and her father, President Trump, at Mar-a-Lago. And talk about what happened that day with the exclusive trademarks she was awarded.

KEVIN SLATEN: Well, I mean, I don’t know a tremendous amount of detail about the profits. I know about the timing of it. I know that before she became White House staff, as you just reported, she had applied for multiple—her company had applied for multiple trademarks. And this is the same thing that—it was the case with Donald Trump himself. Dozens, I think it was something like 30, trademarks were approved shortly after he became president, in China—the trademarks were approved in China. And I think it just highlights this tremendous number of conflicts of interest that Trump has more generally, but specifically as it involves China and Chinese companies and Chinese state-owned companies, or banks, I should say. There’s news that Trump’s organization has a lot of debt with Chinese banks. Trump—we mentioned the trademarks.

Trump himself has products—or his company has products that are mostly produced in China. So there’s lots of different intersections between China, Chinese companies, and really, even if they’re private companies, they’re—it can be influenced by the government, as we can see in this case. So I think there’s a lot of leverage that they could use on the Trumps or even curry favor through this sort of act. It may not be direct, but, you know, this is a—it could be an indirect signal that, “Look, we’re protecting your interests, Ivanka Trump and the Trump family, in China,” and it could be an unspoken favor. So, I think that there’s a tremendous number of conflicts of interest involved here.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you say this is highly unusual. Amnesty has joined in the call for these men to be released. What do you think President Trump can do, as we wrap up, Kevin?

KEVIN SLATEN: If President Trump were—forgetting for a second the conflict of interest, just as president of the United States, at least for now, until he completely degrades the office of the presidency, he still has influence, and he still has the ability, when he speaks about specific people, to bring their—to raise the status of their case. And if he were to name these three, and if he were to talk specifically about this case and call for their release, I do believe that, at the very least, it will protect them within prison, as we’ve seen in many, many cases over the years of political prisoners in China. It could get them protection from torture. But it could even secure their release or a quicker release and a faster legal process. So, I do think that prioritizing this and mentioning them would benefit the three investigators. And if we add on top of that the personal connections, I think that there’s a personal responsibility on the part of the Trump family to do something about this.

AMY GOODMAN: Kevin Slaten, former program coordinator for China Labor Watch, knows the three investigators currently being detained in China. Thanks so much for being with us.

KEVIN SLATEN: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll continue to follow this story. When we come back, we’ll go to Iran to learn what has happened in the attack in Tehran. Stay with us.

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