Made-in-China Toothpicks and Chopsticks: Are These Really Clean?

May 30, 2020 Updated: June 10, 2020

Seeing the “Made-in-China” label on products is not an uncommon sight, but how would one feel if some of their favorite branded items were not produced ethically? Or if items of daily use such as toothpicks and chopsticks were not as clean as they thought they would be?

Recently, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute released a report on detained Uyghurs being forcefully transferred to work in factories across China for “at least 83 well-known global brands” such as Apple, Gap, Sony, Nike, and Samsung. Worker Rights Consortium, a U.S.-based labor rights group, has also disclosed that gloves by the French brand Lacoste were also produced in factories that hold Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic minorities, according to VOA News.

In fact, the term “forced labor” is not an alien topic to those who have been keeping tabs on what’s happening in China.

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The photo shows the buildings at the Artux City Vocational Skills Education Training Service Center, believed to be a re-education camp where mostly Muslim ethnic minorities are detained, north of Kashgar in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region. (GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images)

State-Run Slave Labor Industry

In 2019, the World Organization to Investigate the Persecution of Falun Gong (WOIPFG)—a U.S.-based non-profit dedicated to documenting the persecution of the spiritual discipline—released a two-part investigative report that details how the “state slave labor industry” is thriving in China’s prisons, labor camps, and detention centers. The detainees are often prisoners of conscience or religious minorities who are imprisoned together with other criminal inmates.

Apart from highlighting the many products of daily use, the report also compiled gross examples of how toothpicks and chopsticks are made by detainees—often in grossly unhygienic conditions, which any industry that upholds ethical standards would never allow.

One of the primary enslaved groups is Falun Dafa—a meditation practice based on the principles of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance. The peaceful meditation system, which is currently practiced freely all over the world, was outlawed in China by the former communist party leader Jiang Zemin, who viewed this group of meditators as a “threat” after seeing its moral tenets gaining enormous popularity over the communist ideology. Per the official Chinese state data, 70 million to 100 million people took up the Falun Dafa practice within five years after its introduction in 1992.

On July 20, 1999, Jiang then launched a country-wide persecution campaign, which resulted in numerous Falun Dafa adherents being arrested and sent to prisons, labor camps, and brainwashing centers.

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Falun Dafa practitioners exercising in Shenyang City, Liaoning Province, in 1998 (Minghui)

“Special Containers” and Controlled Restroom Visits

The WOIPFG report cited an example of Inner Mongolia First Women’s Prison, where the practitioners of Falun Dafa observed other inmates packing toothpicks or sorting Quinoa with the aid of a small mug, and at times they employed a “special container”—a small basin that they used to wash their private parts at night.

The report stated: “The prisoners get two mugs of water every day: one at noon and one at night. They would save the mug of hot water they get at night to wash their private parts in this small basin. During the day, this small basin is used to package toothpicks or sort Quinoa. These sorted Quinoa of the highest quality was mainly for export.”

The report mentioned that water outages frequently happened due to either technical faults or intentional cutoff by the prison guards to save money. As a result, prisoners could not wash their hands after using the restroom. The report also added that detainees were allowed to use the restroom only twice a day during working hours. If they do not have money to bribe the guards to allow them to use the restroom, some of them might “hide themselves in big piles of clothes to relieve themselves without the prison guards noticing.”

However, it noted that the apparel companies might be unaware of such actions and “may think that the traces on the clothes are just water marks” and not “urine marks.”

Epoch Times Photo
Used wooden chopsticks at a roasted mutton stall on a street on March 23, 2006, in Changchun of Jilin Province, China. (China Photos/Getty Images)

Unhygienic Working Conditions

Minghui.org, a U.S.-based website that tracks the persecution of Falun Dafa in China, has also released a three-part compilation report on the forced slave labor and the unhygienic work conditions. The report is based on practitioners’ accounts of what they had witnessed in the prisons while being detained.

The report detailed incidents from Liaoning Women’s Prison. The prison has a large-scale clothing factory that produces clothes for export to countries such as the United States, Japan, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and Canada. Apart from making apparel, the inmates also made a variety of goods that include food, shoes, lingerie, and even cotton swabs that were exported to the United States, Europe, Australia, and other countries.

Part-2 of the report, based on the practitioners’ accounts, noted that many of the inmates who were detained in prisons and detention centers often suffered from contagious diseases such as hepatitis, scabies, tuberculosis, or even AIDS, but would still be forced to work. It also mentioned how inmates at the Fushun City Detention Center in Liaoning Province were unhappy with being forced to work and vented their anger while packing toothpicks.

“The toothpicks were put on the ground regardless of the cleanliness. Some inmates rubbed the toothpicks with their athlete’s foot before throwing them back into the pile. There were others who put the toothpicks in their mouths before putting them back,” the report stated.

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Toothpicks made at the Changliu Detention Center in northeastern China’s city of Tonghua (Minghui)

Some Falun Dafa practitioners who managed to flee China have also recounted their experiences of slave labor work while detained in prisons.

Luo Zizhao, a chef at Radiance, a high-end Cantonese restaurant in New York City, told The Epoch Times in 2014 about how he was forced to assemble several products for export, including hairpins and Christmas lights while detained at the Shunde Detention Center in Guangdong Province. While connecting the wires for the Christmas lights, he would often cut himself due to the very sharp copper sheets. The forced labor caused all 10 of his fingers to bleed and fester.

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Master chef Luo Zizhao in Manhattan, New York, Feb. 17, 2014. (Petr Svab/Epoch Times)

Bu Dongwei, who now lives in California and once worked for the San Francisco-based Asia Foundation Beijing branch, told Radio Free Asia in 2009 how he was forced to pack chopsticks in the labor camp in a small, crowded room with other inmates; he was sentenced to two and a half years for practicing Falun Dafa.

Bu said the chopsticks, made and packaged without going through any disinfection in labor camps, are commonly found in restaurants in the United States. He recalled that once when he was in Washington having meals downstairs of Capitol Hill, he saw the same kind of chopsticks in use.

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Bu Dongwei speaking at a rally in downtown San Francisco, California, on July 16, 2016. (Minghui)

Although the WOIPFG noted that the United States had banned the import of goods made by forced labor in 2016, the prisons and detention centers in China were able to continue their export of such products by using “multiple layers of subcontractors to cover up the true origins of these products.”