Ivanka Trump factory inquiry: China tells US to mind own business

Detained activists were selling commercial secrets to unnamed foreign firms, says China

China is standing firm on the fate of three activists detained while inquiring into working conditions at factories that make shoes for Ivanka Trump and other western brands, saying they were being investigated for selling commercial secrets to unspecified foreign organisations.

Hua Haifeng, Li Zhao and Su Heng, who were working for the New York-based China Labour Watch, were detained by mainland police after investigating labour practices at factories that produce footwear for US president Donald Trump's daughter Ivanka and other brands such as Nine West, Karl Lagerfeld and Coach.

The US state department has expressed its concern and the rights group Amnesty International has called for the researchers to be released.

"No country can interfere in China's sovereign and judicial independence," foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a regular news briefing.

She said the activists were detained and investigated on suspicion of interfering with a company’s “normal operation and production activities”, and the illegal use of “professional surveillance equipment”.

‘Gone too far’

The strident nationalist title Global Times accused western media of hyping up the activists' detention.

“The media wants to join the bandwagon in blaming China for its ‘crackdowns’ on labour rights activists. The West has gone too far. The trio, all Chinese nationals, are suspected of using illegal professional surveillance equipment and interfering with the operation of the factories. The detentions are lawful and a Chinese internal matter in which no other country has the right to intervene,” ran the editorial.

China typically rejects comments about its human rights record as being a domestic issue and not any of the West’s business.

“The Chinese government will continue to protect its workers’ rights, but meanwhile will not tolerate any unlawful act in Chinese enterprises. The case is being dealt in accordance with the law, and the western media is hoped to keep its nose out of China’s domestic affairs,” it said.

‘Moral responsibility’

Jerome Cohen, faculty director of New York University's US-Asia Law Institute, said Ivanka Trump's company has a moral responsibility to speak out, and it would be helpful to their situation if the company made a statement expressing deep concern over their detention.

“Ivanka’s company has a moral responsibility not only to those detained but also to all workers who are exploited by Chinese companies striving to make a profit while competing with rivals to successfully respond to the demands of foreign companies for ever cheaper prices,” Mr Cohen wrote in a commentary on his blog.

“It would also be good public relations for Ivanka to take the lead in supporting more humane working conditions. She should not see the human rights monitors as antagonists but as collaborators in the difficult effort to assure improved labour conditions,” Mr Cohen said.

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan, an Irish Times contributor, spent 15 years reporting from Beijing