The Men Investigating Ivanka Trump's Shoe Producer in China Are Missing or Arrested

Updated: May 31, 2017 2:58 AM ET | Originally published: May 30, 2017

(SHANGHAI) — The arrest and disappearance of three labor activists investigating a Chinese company that produces Ivanka Trump-branded shoes in China prompted a call for her brand to cease working with the supplier and raised questions about whether the first family's commercial interests would muddy U.S. leadership on human rights.

The men were working with a U.S. nonprofit to publish a report next month alleging low pay, excessive overtime and possible misuse of student labor, according to China Labor Watch executive director Li Qiang, who lost contact with the investigators over the weekend. China Labor Watch has been exposing poor working conditions at suppliers to some of the world's best-known companies for nearly two decades, but Li said his work has never before attracted this level of scrutiny from China's state security apparatus.

The arrest and disappearances come amid a crackdown on perceived threats to the stability of China's ruling Communist Party, particularly from sources with foreign ties such as China Labor Watch. Faced with rising labor unrest and a slowing economy, Beijing has taken a stern approach to activism in southern China's manufacturing belt and to human rights advocates generally, sparking a wave of critical reports about disappearances, public confessions, forced repatriation and torture in custody.

China Labor Watch's investigation also had an unusual target: a brand owned by the daughter of the president of the United States.

"Ivanka's brand should immediately cease its work with this supplier, and the Trump administration should reverse its current course and confront China on its human rights abuses," Adrienne Watson, spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee, said in a Wednesday email. Ivanka Trump must decide, she added, "whether she can ignore the Chinese government's apparent attempt to silence an investigation into those worker abuses."

Ivanka Trump's lifestyle brand imports most of its merchandise from China, trade data show. She and her father both have extensive trademark portfolios in China, though neither has managed to build up a large retail or real estate presence here. The sister of Jared Kushner, a Trump adviser and husband of Ivanka, travelled to China this past month to court investment from Chinese families for a real estate project in New Jersey.

"The eagerness of members of the family to do business in China while airbrushing very troubling human rights and labor rights records of the country is troubling," said Nicholas Bequelin, East Asia director for Amnesty International. We'll have to wait and see, he added, "to what extent business is trumping any kind of consideration of the diplomatic capital of the U.S. in promoting human rights, labor rights and democracy."

White House spokeswoman Hope Hicks referred questions to Ivanka Trump's brand. The Ivanka Trump brand declined to comment for this story Tuesday.

Abigail Klem, who took over day-to-day management when the first daughter became a White House presidential adviser, has said the brand requires licensees and their manufacturers to "comply with all applicable laws and to maintain acceptable working conditions."

One of the investigators, Hua Haifeng, was accused of illegal surveillance, according to his wife, Deng Guilian, who said the police called her Tuesday afternoon. Deng said the caller told her she didn't need to know the details, only that she would not be able to see, speak with or receive money from her husband, the family's breadwinner.

Li said China Labor Watch asked police about the Deng and the two other investigators, Li Zhao and Su Heng, on Monday but received no reply. Li added that a friend had tried to file a missing person report on Li Zhao in Jiangxi province, but was told he had to do so in the man's hometown.

AP was unable to reach the other investigators' families. China's Ministry of Public Security and police could not be reached for comment Tuesday, which was a national holiday in China. Calls went unanswered Wednesday morning.

The men were investigating Huajian Group factories in the southern Chinese cities of Ganzhou and Dongguan. Su Heng had been working undercover at the Ganzhou factory since April, Li said.

In January, Liu Shiyuan, then spokesman for the Huajian Group, told AP the company makes 10,000 to 20,000 pairs of shoes a year for Ivanka Trump's brand — a fraction of the 20 million pairs the company produces a year. A current spokeswoman for the company, Long Shan, did not reply to questions Tuesday or Wednesday morning.

Li said investigators had seen Ivanka Trump-brand merchandise, as well as production orders for Ivanka Trump, Marc Fisher, Nine West and Easy Spirit.

"We were unaware of the allegations and will look into them immediately," a spokeswoman for Marc Fisher, which manufactures Ivanka Trump, Easy Spirit and its own branded shoes, said in an email Tuesday. Nine West did not respond to requests for comment.

Li Zhao and Hua Haifeng were blocked from leaving mainland China for Hong Kong in April and May — something that had never happened to his colleagues before, Li said. Hua Haifeng was stopped at the border May 25 and later questioned by police, Li said. During their final phone conversation on Saturday, Hua told Li that police had asked him to stop investigating the Huajian factory — another turn of events that Li said was unprecedented.

Li said the men had documented excessive overtime, with working days sometimes stretching longer than 18 hours, and a base salary below minimum wage. They were working to confirm evidence suggesting that student interns — some of whom allegedly quit in protest — were putting in excessive hours on work unrelated to their field of study, in violation of Chinese law, Li said.

Hua's wife, Deng, meanwhile, has yet to tell the couple's children, ages 3 and 7, about their father's plight. But they seem to know anyway, she said.

"My son suddenly burst into tears. He said he missed Papa," Deng said by phone from her home in central China's Hubei province. "I said Papa would come home soon and buy you toys."

She said the child looked at her and answered: "Papa was taken away by a monster."

Associated Press researcher Fu Ting contributed from Shanghai.

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