Used Foreign Clothing: A Hot Commodity and a Health Hazard in China

By Jane Lin
Jane Lin
Jane Lin
October 17, 2009 Updated: October 18, 2009

While importing and selling used foreign clothing is illegal in China, businesses dealing in such castoffs are flourishing across the country.

The clothing, often refuse from garbage dumps, waste management companies, or hospital morgues in Korea, Japan, and the U.S., is usually smuggled into China through the southeastern township of Jieshi in Guangdong Province, according to media reports.

In recent years, Chinese media has reported widely on the illegal selling of this “foreign garbage,” (yang laji) a term usually applied to foreign used clothing. Thriving businesses can be found in provinces such as Hunan, Guangxi, Henan, Hubei, Jiangxi, Zhejiang, Sichuan, as well as others.

Jieshi is located on the coast, with a population of 330,000. Residents have been trading in used foreign clothes for over a decade. About 10,000 families there make a living by selling up to 100 million items a year, according to an article published on Oct. 7 in the Guangzhou Daily.

‘Foreign Garbage’ vs. ‘Surplus Export Clothes’

Although most native Chinese may have the sentiment that foreign used clothing is no more than “foreign garbage,” residents of Jieshi prefer to just call it “used clothing.” They purchase the items for extremely low prices from black market traffickers, then on-sell the good quality, more marketable articles as “surplus export clothes,” which command a much higher price, according to the article.

On average, a cargo container full of filthy, smelly, and moldy foreign used clothing is smuggled into Jieshi on a daily basis, while pile after pile of clothes can be seen everywhere in some villages. Clothes are first sorted, before going through a simple refurbishing process.

However, one key component was missing in the refurbishing process—sanitization.

The “foreign garbage” was often infested with bacteria and parasites, most likely by-products of human or bird excrement, according to Wang Jianming, an assistant professor in the Material Science Department of Beijing Institute of Clothing Technology, who was quoted in the Chinese press. The items consequently pose a serious health threat to consumers, he said.

Frequent Raids Fail to Deter Business

Article 339 of the Chinese Criminal Law deals with illegally importing solid waste, a crime punishable with a jail sentence of five years, and fines. If the imported product contributed to severe pollution, the crime could carry a sentence of up to ten years.

Authorities in various parts of China have reportedly raided shops that illegally sold foreign garbage, usually after receiving tip-offs from informants.

Jieshi township authorities claim that in the past two years there were 10 large-scale raids and 86 small-scale raids on shops that sold the illegal products, including two major operations in July which saw up to 120 tons of clothing confiscated, according to a follow-up report by the Guangzhou Daily on Oct. 9.

Jieshi township authorities blame the traffickers for being desperate to make a buck and repeatedly breaking the law.

However, some insiders reveal that it has a lot to do with corrupt regime officials.

An anonymous blogger who identified himself as a resident of Lufeng, Jieshi township, posted an article on the Internet exposing a corrupt Lufeng official who collaborated with smugglers to make a huge profit.

In another article published on July 14, 2009, a shopkeeper in the city of Wuhan, Hubei Province bragged to a reporter posing as a shopper that she had “given some goodies” [perks] to the local authorities, and therefore felt very comfortable selling foreign garbage. The article was published by, a website associated with the China Association for Quality Promotion.

Read the original Chinese article

Jane Lin