At war with Alibaba: Top brands fight China e-commerce giant

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SHANGHAI (AP) — It was looking like a banner year for business in China. The U.S. clothing company was expecting a 20 percent jump in online sales on Alibaba’s Tmall, thanks to the e-commerce giant’s massive reach.

But executives soon learned that what Alibaba gives, it can also take away.

The company refused to sign an exclusive contract with Alibaba, and instead participated in a big sale promotion with its archrival, JD.com Inc. Tmall punished them by taking steps to cut traffic to their storefront, two executives told The Associated Press. They said advertising banners vanished from prominent spots in Tmall sales showrooms, the company was blocked from special sales and products stopped appearing in top search results.

The well-known American brand saw its Tmall sales plummet 10 to 20 percent for the year.

“Based on our sales record, we should have been in a prominent position, but we were at the bottom of the page,” said the brand’s e-commerce director, who spoke only on condition of anonymity for fear of further retaliation. “That’s a clear manipulation of traffic. That’s a clear punishment.”

As the Trump administration pushes China to play by fair trade rules, companies are caught in a quieter but no less crucial struggle for rules-based access to a $610 billion online marketplace, an AP investigation has found.

Executives from five major consumer brands told the AP that after they refused to enter exclusive partnerships with Alibaba, traffic to their Tmall storefronts fell, hurting sales. Three are American companies with billions in annual sales that rely on China for growth.

Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. denied punishing the companies.

In a statement, Alibaba said pursuing exclusive deals is a common industry practice and called the charges of coercion “completely false.”

“Alibaba and Tmall conduct business in full compliance with Chinese laws,” Alibaba said. “Like many e-commerce platforms, we have exclusive partnerships with some of the merchants on Tmall. The merchant decides to choose such an arrangement because of the attractive services and value Tmall brings to them.”

The executives spoke to the AP only on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, but their concerns were echoed by a U.S. industry group, brand consultants and policy makers in China and JD.com itself.

In a speech about cyberspace last week, Chinese president Xi Jinping said ensuring free and fair competition online was a regulatory priority, citing the need “to cultivate a fair market environment, strengthen intellectual property protection, and oppose monopoly and unfair competition,” state media reported.

In its months-long investigation, the AP interviewed more than 30 people and reviewed two contracts from Alibaba that contained the previously unreported exclusivity clauses. The AP found that the platforms that control access to Chinese consumers online wield such enormous power that even multi-billion dollar foreign companies can have trouble fighting back.

“We urge the authorities to quickly investigate and take steps to ensure such practices are eliminated from the growing Chinese marketplace,” said Stephen Lamar, executive vice-president of the American Apparel & Footwear Association, adding that members of his industry group had complained about unfair competitive practices by Alibaba.

JD.com is a member and sponsor of the trade group.

 In Nov. 6, 2017, photo, a mascot for Tmall, an online shopping website owned by Alibaba, promotes Singles Day in Beijing, China. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File).

In Nov. 6, 2017, photo, a mascot for Tmall, an online shopping website owned by Alibaba, promotes Singles Day in Beijing, China. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File).

Imagine a company twice as profitable as Amazon that each year serves more people than live in all of North America. That’s Alibaba. It claims to be the marketplace for nearly $550 billion a year in sales — more than is sold online in the entire U.S. economy.

The trials of the affected companies offer a rare window onto a bruising business culture forged in China that could spread as Alibaba takes its aggressive, innovative and hugely profitable model of e-commerce global. To the extent that their products are manufactured in the United States — and some are — constricting sales in China’s critical growth market can also deepen the imbalance of trade between China and the U.S., a gap that is a top concern for the Trump administration.

The competition between Alibaba and JD.com is so infamous in China — and so dirty — it’s been dubbed the “great cat-and-dog war,” after Tmall’s black-cat mascot and JD.com’s white dog.

Wang Hongbo, a consultant who helps Chinese brands sell online abroad, echoed the problems cited by the companies who spoke to AP.

“Many brands complained about this to us. Because they didn’t fall in line, they faced restrictions on Tmall,” he said.

JD.com said that over 100 Chinese brands defected last year due to pressure from its main rival, an assertion Alibaba and some brands have contested. The exodus appears to have had a lasting impact.

“Based on the feedbacks we received from these merchants, the move was mainly due to the coercive tactics from our competition, which if proven true would be illegal and clearly against the merchants’ will,” said Sidney Huang, JD.com’s chief financial officer, said in a November earnings call.

Peacebird, a Chinese fashion company, is among those that left JD.com last year. But Weng Jianghong, the company’s general manager of e-commerce, said Alibaba had not coerced them and the decision to focus on Tmall was strategic.

“We will centralize and develop the limited resources of our company on Tmall,” he said.

Many companies, including JD.com, do exclusive deals. However, JD.com maintains that it doesn’t strategically push merchants for exclusivity.

“We support fair and open competition because greater choice is always better for brands and users,” JD.com said in a statement. “We are winning over customers by providing a superior shopping experience, rather than by limiting the options of brands or consumers.”

JD.com is still trying to get brands to return. “We do believe there will be more merchants coming back,” Huang said in a call last month with analysts. “But I do not expect a very quick fix.”

PLAY OR PAY

Tmall controlled six of every ten dollars spent overall for business-to-consumer sales online in China in the second half of last year — and even more for sectors like apparel — giving it enormous power over companies that rely on Alibaba for access to Chinese consumers online.

 Source: Analysys Ltd. (AP Graphic/Peter Hamlin).

Source: Analysys Ltd. (AP Graphic/Peter Hamlin).

The contracts reviewed by AP offered a suite of benefits in exchange for exclusivity. One contract specified that brands must not operate storefronts on other e-commerce platforms without Tmall’s written permission. The other contract mandated that new products not be launched on competing platforms and barred brands from sales promotions on other platforms without Tmall’s written permission.

Such sales events are the lifeblood of online commerce in China. The country’s massive Singles Day promotion in November, which started as an anti-Valentine’s Day gimmick, is now the world’s largest e-commerce event. Last year, Alibaba said $25 billion worth of merchandise was sold on its platforms alone, compared with just $14.5 billion in total online sales in the U.S. for Thanksgiving Day, Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined, according to data from Adobe Systems Inc.

Brands cited commercial, ideological and legal reasons for refusing to cut off business with JD.com.

Some said that different people shop in different ways on JD.com and Tmall, so cutting off JD.com means cutting off access to a pool of potential shoppers.

“It’s clear from the data we look at these are distinct consumer pools,” said the China head of a publicly-traded company. “If I lost the JD business I would lose a certain part of that business. Another part is on principle: This is blatant anticompetitive behavior.”

Others cited legal concerns. “We didn’t want to go for it in part because we thought it might be an illegal agreement in restraint of trade,” said an executive for a second publicly-traded company.

“We’re chided when we participate in promotional events on other platforms,” he added. “What’s never said but actually happens when we don’t cooperate in the way they want us to is our traffic falls. It’s not a coincidence.”

Two companies said they granted concessions to Alibaba, agreeing to exclusive product launches, raising their prices on JD.com, or removing ads promoting JD.com sales. Traffic to their Tmall shops rebounded. One company said it ultimately closed its flagship on JD.com to salvage Tmall sales.

“You have to go beg,” said the China director of a multi-billion dollar publicly-traded company.

THE GREAT CAT-AND-DOG WAR

Tmall and JD.com have different business models but they are increasingly pushing onto each other’s turf.

Alibaba’s online marketplaces connect buyers and sellers. Alibaba earns money from advertising, as well as commissions and fees. JD.com runs a similar marketplace but, like Amazon, also buys products from brands, then sells and distributes the merchandise itself.

Alibaba has taken aim at JD.com’s long-standing dominance in electronics, while JD.com hopes to cut into Tmall’s core apparel category. Both have expanded into groceries and poured hundreds of millions of dollars into acquisitions to extend their reach into brick-and-mortar businesses.

 In this Nov. 11, 2017 file photo, young children visit the headquarters for Chinese e-commerce giant JD.com during “Singles Day” in Beijing, China. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File).

In this Nov. 11, 2017 file photo, young children visit the headquarters for Chinese e-commerce giant JD.com during “Singles Day” in Beijing, China. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File).

The result is an escalating turf fight that carries a chilling message for brands: Either you’re with us or against us. The Chinese have a name for this unwritten rule, “er xuan yi,” choose one of two.

“‘Choose one of two’ is a tacit understanding that has been reached by everyone, but you do not say it directly,” said Zhuo Saijun, who until 2015 was a general manager of e-commerce research at Analysys Ltd., a Beijing-based big data consultancy. “This is certainly a problem for the development of retail sales channels. It is a business ethics problem, and this is how monopolies develop.”

Some policymakers have raised concerns about monopolistic tendencies in Chinese e-commerce and called for more effective regulation and enforcement.

“Unfair competition still exists,” Wang Bingnan, a deputy director at China’s Ministry of Commerce, said in a June speech about China’s e-commerce market. “Behaviors like forced ‘choose one of two,’” he added, “are hard for regulators to define, prove or deal with accurately.”

It’s not clear whether Alibaba’s actions would be illegal, nor is it certain that the evidence of coercion that brands have managed to collect would hold up in court. Under China’s anti-monopoly laws, companies that dominate a market cannot demand exclusivity without justification. A 2015 regulation also specifically bars e-commerce platforms from restricting brands’ participation in promotions on other platforms.

The rules are designed to prevent dominant players from squeezing out the competition, which could ultimately hurt both brands and consumers by giving a single, monopolistic player absolute control over prices.

JD.com has complained about anticompetitive tactics before. In 2015, the company filed a complaint with the State Administration for Industry and Commerce, a corporate regulator, accusing Alibaba of pressuring brands into doing exclusive Singles Day sales promotions — a charge Alibaba denied. The complaint was kicked to a regional office in Zhejiang province, where Alibaba has its headquarters.

Nothing more was ever heard about it.

The regulators did not respond to requests for comment.

Alibaba said that while JD.com focuses “on groundless complaints to explain why they are losing brands, we at Alibaba are squarely focused on making our platform the best for our merchants.”

MR. MA GOES GLOBAL

The battles now being waged within China’s e-commerce sector could well impact the culture and norms of e-commerce globally — at least if Alibaba’s chairman, Jack Ma, has his way.

Alibaba aims to serve 2 billion consumers by 2036 — or about one in four people now on the planet. Already, the value of goods sold on Alibaba’s platforms in fiscal year 2017 was $547 billion, larger than the gross domestic product of Sweden.

In June, Ma told investors that his company will rank as the fifth largest economy in the world. “Just say USA, China, Europe, maybe Japan and us,” Ma said.

The company has been aggressively recruiting foreign brands to sell on its platforms, and they have come, in droves. Alibaba said it signed up 60,000 international brands for its massive Single’s Day sale in November, up from 5,000 in 2015.

Alibaba’s retail sales outside of China also are growing fast — they more than doubled last fiscal year to 7.3 billion yuan ($1.1 billion), or 5 percent of total revenue.

America remains at the heart of Ma’s ambition. He told president-elect Donald Trump in Jan. 2017 that he would create a million U.S. jobs by facilitating trade between businesses in the U.S and consumers in China — a pledge he now says is imperiled by the brewing trade war between the two countries.

Brands now caught in the great cat and dog war have adopted different strategies to avoid becoming collateral damage.

An e-commerce manager at a major European brand said she’d be happy to offer totally different products on Tmall and JD.com to stay out of trouble, but worries her bosses won’t go for it because it cuts off potential buyers.

Sometimes, she said, it feels “like we’re working for those platforms.”

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Associated Press reporter Anne D’Innocenzio contributed from Las Vegas. Associated Press researchers Si Chen and Fu Ting contributed from Shanghai.

Factories make unexpected legacy for Ivanka Trump in China

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XIANGYANG, China (AP) — The young woman, new to the grind of Chinese factory life, knew the man who called himself Kalen only by the photo on his chat profile. It showed him with a pressed smile holding a paper cup in a swank skyscraper somewhere late at night.

Yu Chunyan and her friends didn’t know what to make of him. Some thought his eyes were shifty. Others said he looked handsome in a heroic sort of way.

Yu was among the doubters. The daughter of factory workers, Yu paid her way through college by working in factories herself. She and thousands of other students had toiled through the summer of 2016 assembling iPhones at a supplier for Apple Inc., but they hadn’t been paid their full wages.

Kalen was offering to help — and asking nothing in return.

This struck Yu as suspicious. If there was one thing she had learned in her 23 years it was this: “There’s no free lunch.”

Disputes like these often don’t go well for workers in China. But over the years, suicides and sweatshop scandals have pushed some companies, like Apple, to reconsider their approach to workplace fairness.

Today, a growing number of brands, including Apple, Nike Inc., Gap Inc., Levi Strauss & Co., and the H&M Group prioritize transparency and take public responsibility for conditions throughout their global supply chains. Labor rights groups like the one Kalen worked for, China Labor Watch, can play a useful watchdog role for these companies, by helping them understand what’s really going on at their suppliers.

But not everyone has embraced this new approach.

When China Labor Watch confronted Ivanka Trump’s brand with charges of labor abuses at its Chinese suppliers, her company refused to engage. It made no public effort to investigate the allegations: forced overtime, pay as low as $1 an hour, and crude verbal and physical abuse — including one incident in which a man was hit in the head with the sharp end of a high-heeled shoe.

Ivanka Trump, who still owns but no longer closely manages her namesake brand, stayed silent. Neither she nor her brand would comment for this story.

Unlike Apple, her brand doesn’t publish the identities of its manufacturers. In fact, its supply chains have only grown more opaque since the first daughter took on her White House role.

But as the summer of 2016 was ending, Yu Chunyan had no idea she was about to get an education in geopolitics and corporate social responsibility. She wanted one thing only: her wages. And she saw one way to get them: The stranger with the odd English name.

Kalen and China Labor Watch would link Yu not just to Apple, but ultimately, to the daughter of the President of the United States. Their intersecting stories highlight the contrasting approaches Apple and Ivanka Trump’s brand have taken to workplace fairness — and the impact those decisions have had on the ground in China.

It would take Yu more than a year to discover who Kalen really was.

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NO HELP CAME

When Yu was still a baby, her parents went to work at a factory in one of the southern boomtowns of Guangdong province. As a child, entire years passed without a visit from her mother or father.

This was an ordinary enough fate in China, and Yu grew up bouncing between her grandparents’ homes in central China’s Henan province.

The first extraordinary thing that happened to Yu was her high school entrance exam. She aced it, despite her middling grades, scoring even higher than the known overachievers in class.

The shock of her accomplishment gave Yu a soaring sense of her own potential. She raced to tell her mother.

“Oh,” was her mother’s stony response.

Yu’s test score opened the possibility, unsettling to her parents, that she would not marry young, produce grandchildren and start earning money for the family.

Her parents regarded aspiration warily: Excellence would only lead to inflated expectations. Just the sort of thing, her parents feared, that could crush a person. Better to remain where you are, bound by a certain, riskless horizon.

Yu did not agree. “As long as I want something, I will get it,” she decided.

Her parents let her stay in school, but if Yu wanted to go to college, she would have to pay her own way.

And so she did. She enrolled in a college in Henan province. Ultimately, she wanted to do something creative, like design; in the meantime factory jobs weren’t a bad way to make money.

In July 2016, Yu took her place on the assembly line at Jabil Inc.’s Green Point factory in Wuxi, a city near Shanghai. She spent her 12-hour shift snapping the back cover of the iPhone 7 into a mold and passing it down the line.

“It seems simple,” Yu said. “But if you work the whole day doing this your hands will be really tired. Normally, it’s a job for a man.”

Her group’s production quota kept going up, climbing from 2,000 to 50,000 units a day, Yu said. She got dizzy. Her hands hurt. She thought: “When will it be over?”

In August 2016, she quit, ignoring admonitions that her pay would be docked 500 yuan ($79, at today’s rates) for leaving early.

Yu made the 12-hour train trip back to school in Henan and on Sept. 10, her final paycheck hit her bank account. It was an ugly surprise. She was 1,100 yuan short of the 4,930 yuan she expected. Her salary was supposed to cover her tuition. Now it didn’t.

“I was furious,” she said. “I thought that no matter what I would get my money back.”

She called the factory and the labor broker who had gotten her the job only to be informed of a range of surprising fees, some legitimate, others not.

Yu called the labor union at Green Point for help. “Useless,” she said. She called the local labor bureau, but no one picked up.

On Chinese social media, Yu found a chorus of despair as other students — the children of farmers, factory and construction workers — vented about being stiffed on WeChat, QQ and Weibo.

“Everyone had an attitude like, ‘Well, it has nothing to do with me,’” said Zhuang Huaqian, an electrical engineering student at Hunan University of Technology, who spent the summer assembling iPhones in a moon suit of dust-free clothing.

The head of one of the labor brokers in the dispute, Ding Yan, said his company had done nothing wrong. “Wages are our bottom line. We will never underpay them,” he said. “I wouldn’t risk this brand.”

Frustrated, the students took their case to the press. A few articles appeared detailing their complaints, but Yu and another student said postings began to disappear. Were they being censored, they wondered?

The local government published an article on an official Weibo account that said authorities acted swiftly and more than 2,100 students had been repaid. The post included complaint hotlines workers could call.

Chen Jianbin, head of Wuxi’s labor security supervision unit, said his team had to sort through verbal contracts, informal intermediaries and fake complaints apparently lodged by people paid to smear competing labor agencies.

“We were trying our best to help,” said Chen. “Those students’ lives were not easy.”

But many students hadn’t gotten their money back.

Beneath their fury was growing desperation. Every lever of redress they had tried failed them. They had appealed for help to forces they thought they could believe in — society, the government — but no help came.

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‘THE WORLD IS FULL OF GOOD PEOPLE’

There was, however, one guy, who did offer help. He called himself Kalen.

Kalen had worked in a phone factory himself, 13 years earlier, polishing cheap landline phones for a Chinese brand at a factory in Shenzhen. Back then, he didn’t realize he was being underpaid until he wandered into the office of a local labor rights group one day and learned that he wasn’t earning the legal minimum wage.

That knowledge electrified him. He devoured books about labor rights in the group’s reading room as he prepared his case. Two months later, he won 3,000 yuan in back pay through a local arbitration panel.

Kalen wondered how many other workers out there were like him, ignorant of their rights. He quit his factory job and dedicated himself to teaching workers how to use China’s laws to protect themselves.

Kalen brought his evidence-based approach to China Labor Watch, a group many of the students had never heard of before. He told them about the group’s past work with Apple suppliers and taught them how to calculate what they were owed. He admonished them to be honest as he gathered details about working hours and pay from over 200 workers.

“Seek truth from facts,” he wrote them on QQ.

In September, China Labor Watch asked Apple to intervene. The company sent a local team to investigate, reporting that 2,501 students had received back wages.

But many said they still hadn’t been fully paid.

When Kalen asked for a volunteer to write a letter to Apple, Yu was torn: Could she get kicked out of school for speaking out?

“It was so hard for me to make this money,” she said. “As long as there was a little bit of hope left I wanted to try.” She stayed up past midnight writing down everything that had happened.

On Sept. 28, Li emailed Yu’s letter to Apple.

Five days later, Apple wrote back: It had done further investigation and would ensure workers got paid for their day of training and extra work during meal breaks.

“Jabil invested hundreds of hours of staff time to contact approximately 17,000 employees,” Eric Austermann, Jabil’s vice-president of social and environmental responsibility wrote in an email to AP. “Although often lacking an email address, phone number, or other standard contact information, Jabil located all but about 5 percent of these employees, all of whom have been paid in full.”

The workers received over 2.7 million yuan ($426,000, at today’s rates), according to Jabil Green Point and an October 2017 email from Apple to China Labor Watch.

Apple declined to the comment on the case.

The students’ payments came in a few hundred or thousand yuan at a time. This was money for school, for food, a way to stay out of debt. By the end of October, Yu had gotten back everything she was owed.

She was impressed. She amended the letter she had written for Kalen, turning it into a testimonial and a statement of personal intent. China Labor Watch posted it on its website.

“Due to this experience, I am confident that the world is full of good people, people who make selfless contributions,” Yu wrote. “I wish to join a public interest organization. I wish to help others.”

But China was changing. Hundreds of human rights lawyers and activists had been swept up in a crackdown against perceived threats to the ruling Communist Party. Those with foreign ties, like China Labor Watch, were viewed with particular suspicion.

Yu had yet to grasp the perils of her growing idealism.

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IT COULD HAVE BEEN ME

After Chinese New Year, Yu moved to Shanghai, a city she had only seen in pictures, to take a job at an interior design company. In March 2017, five months after she’d received her back pay from the factory, Yu reconnected with Kalen on WeChat.

Kalen told her China Labor Watch might need people to work undercover.

China Labor Watch was closing in on factories that made Ivanka Trump merchandise, including Ganzhou Huajian International Shoe City Co.

But the thought of returning to the grind of factory life was more than she could stomach.

“I needed to push myself forward,” she said. She wanted to learn English, dress better, lose weight.

China Labor Watch ultimately sent two men to work undercover. The group obtained a video of a manager berating a worker for apparently arranging shoes in the wrong order.

“If I see them f---ing messed up again,” the manager yells, “I’ll beat you right here.” Another worker was left with blood dripping from his head after a manager hit him with the sharp end of a high heeled shoe, according to three eyewitnesses who spoke to the AP.

The Huajian Group, which runs the factory in Ganzhou, denied all the allegations as “completely not true to the facts, taken out of context, exaggerated.” In April, China Labor Watch laid out its initial findings in a letter to Ivanka Trump at the White House.

She did not respond.

Over the years, Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd., Gap Inc., Target Corp., Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and other companies took China Labor Watch seriously enough to respond to criticisms or meet Li in person, according to emails and meeting notes reviewed by AP. Walt Disney Co. severed its relationship with at least one supplier after China Labor Watch exposed poor working conditions.

“We did an investigation on Apple because Apple is a big American company,” Li said. “If Apple changes, the other companies will follow. Now Ivanka is the most famous person among all these companies. If she can change, the other companies will too.”

But that plan backfired.

At the end of May, three China Labor Watch investigators were arrested, accused of illegally using secret cameras and listening devices.

One of them was investigator Hua Haifeng. Police had warned Hua to drop the Huajian investigation, but he pushed ahead anyway, Li said.

A wiry man not easily moved to alarm, Hua seemed to accept fear as the cost of his decision to live his life as an expression of his values.

In more than a decade working on labor rights in China, Hua had helped thousands of workers get back money they were owed, all the while half-wondering when he’d be forced to stop.

Now that he had, Hua, 36, was cut off from his wife and two young children.

Inside the Ganzhou City Detention Center, Hua shared a toothbrush with strangers. Locked in a cell so crowded there weren’t enough wooden boards to sleep on, Hua stretched out at night on a concrete floor next to a bucket that served as the toilet for around 20 men. The men added water and soap, hoping the bubbles might somehow take the stench out of human waste. It didn’t work.

It was the first time in China Labor Watch’s 17-year history that its investigators had been arrested. Police raided the group’s Shenzhen office and carried away computers and documents, Li said.

From his office in New York, Li worked frantically to get the men out of jail. He was convinced the shift in fortune was due to the target of their inquiry: a brand owned by the daughter of the U.S. president. But he had no proof.

Ivanka Trump — and her brand — said nothing about the arrests.

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WHERE IS KALEN?

Days after the arrest, Yu Chunyan took a new job at a design company in Shanghai, but something lingered from her experience at the Green Point factory. “I’d prefer work that can help more people,” she said.

She got a friend request from China Labor Watch’s Li Qiang. She messaged Kalen to check Li out.

Kalen never replied. She wondered what had happened to him.

On June 5, the U.S. State Department called for the immediate release of the three China Labor Watch investigators.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded that other nations “have no right to interfere with our judicial sovereignty.” State-owned media reported that the trio had tried to steal trade secrets and sell them overseas.

Li Qiang wrote to Ivanka Trump at the White House on June 6, describing what he called “extreme working conditions” in her supply chain. “Your words and deeds can make a difference in these workers’ lives,” he wrote.

He got no reply.

Her brand has called its supply chain integrity “a top priority,” but also maintains that its suppliers are overseen by licensees — companies it contracts with to make tons of Ivanka Trump handbags, shoes and clothes.

The brand said its shoes had not been produced at the Huajian factory since March, though China Labor Watch obtained an April production schedule for nearly 1,000 pairs of Ivanka Trump shoes due in May.

In late June, after 30 days in jail, the three China Labor Watch investigators were released on bail. Hua carried his son in his arms as he walked out of a police station in Ganzhou.

Hua declined to be interviewed for this story. His lawyer said police ordered him not to speak with the media. His bail conditions dictated that he must check in weekly with police and cannot travel without permission. That, plus the cloud of criminal suspicion that clung to him in his small hometown, made it hard to get a job.

In July, Hua asked police for permission to take a family vacation in the Wudang mountains, three hours away. After articles came out in the foreign press quoting Hua, half a dozen plainclothes policemen appeared at a restaurant where Hua was having dinner with his family and tapped him on the shoulder. The next morning they escorted him home, leaving his wife, Deng Guilian, to wander through Taoist temples alone with the kids.

With her husband out of work, Deng got a job selling drinks and snacks at a local karaoke parlor from 6 p.m. until 2 a.m. After her shift, she heads to a nearby dormitory where she and a female co-worker share a bed with a Snoopy headboard.

She gets three days off a month to see her four-year-old son, Bo Bo, and seven-year-old daughter, Chen Chen.

“They seem accustomed to not having their mom,” Deng said, flashing an uneasy smile.

Each Monday morning after dropping his kids at school, Hua makes the short drive past weedy lots and a factory spewing thick white smoke to check in with the local police in Nanzhang County.

At first they lectured him: Change careers. Don’t speak out. Live a normal life. Now, he usually just signs his name, his wife said, but it is clear that missteps can quickly draw the wrath of local authorities.

Police in Nanzhang County, Ganzhou city and Jiangxi province did not respond to requests for comment.

In October, Li Qiang again wrote to Ivanka Trump and her brand.

He said he got no response.

Ivanka Trump’s actions show “that she does not care about these workers who are making her products, and is only concerned with making profits,” Li said in an email. “As a public figure, she has the ability and resources to not only work on labor conditions at her own brand’s factories, but also to help improve labor conditions of the global supply chain as a whole. However, she did not use her influence to do these things.”

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AN ORDINARY PERSON

Shortly after 6 p.m. on an October evening, Yu Chunyan left her office and walked through Shanghai’s former French Concession, the wealthy heart of China’s most prosperous city. She passed rows of thick plane trees, black against a darkening sky, and stepped into a discreet tea house.

Yu slid open the wooden door of a private room and peeked inside with a wide, nervous smile at the AP journalists she had agreed to meet. A chunky, colorless sweater hung off her body and her stocking feet poked out of white sandals despite the cold.

Yu slipped off her shoes and took a seat at the sunken table, doing her best to avoid the list of fancy teas glowing from a scrollable iPad menu. She began to talk about Kalen, and pulled out her phone to flip to their exchanges on WeChat.

There, in his tiny profile photo, was a familiar face.

“Do you know him?” she asked, surprised.

AP had been writing about him for months.

Kalen was Hua Haifeng.

Yu had no idea that her Kalen was the same Hua Haifeng who had been arrested while investigating Ivanka Trump suppliers. She listened, still and silent, to news of interrogations and surveillance, his son’s sudden nightmares, the jail and the bucket of urine.

Her eyes welled. Elegant cakes lay untouched in front of her.

An hour later, she sent a WeChat message to Kalen.

“Do you have to take risks to work in your industry?” she asked.

Risks depend on politics, he wrote her, and the conditions of the country you live in. “From the beginning, I expected something like this could happen,” he told her. “So it’s not about bad luck. It was going to happen sooner or later.”

“If you had another chance, would you do the same thing?” she asked.

“Yes,” he answered. Hua told Yu that he had to live a life that embodied his values. He tried to be encouraging. “I am not saying that everyone has to pay that high a price.”

But Yu had a sense that Hua had run up against forces neither of them could fully grasp, much less defeat. In her mind, she was recalibrating the risks of idealism.

“I wouldn’t be able to do it,” Yu said.

In late November, she left Shanghai to go back and live with her parents.

“I want to be an ordinary person,” she said. “I don’t want to get involved with controversial things.”

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Associated Press reporter Garance Burke in San Francisco and researchers Fu Ting and Chen Si in Shanghai contributed to this report.

China mom pays dearly for husband’s probe of Ivanka Trump

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XIANGYANG, China (AP) — With two young children, Deng Guilian hadn’t planned on going back to work. That changed after her husband was arrested while investigating labor abuses at Chinese suppliers for Ivanka Trump’s brand.

Now the 36-year-old mom works the overnight shift at a karaoke parlor and stays in a dorm nearby. She gets just three days off a month to see her kids.

“They seem accustomed to not having their mom,” Deng said of her 7-year-old daughter, Chen Chen, and 4-year-old son, Bo Bo.

She flashed an uneasy smile.

Ivanka Trump has sought to bring an aura of female empowerment to her lifestyle brand and spoken out for women’s rights from her post at the White House. But her legacy has been less than empowering for at least one woman in China.

In May, Deng’s husband, Hua Haifeng, and two of his colleagues were accused of illegally using secret recording devices and thrown in jail while investigating factories that made shoes for Ivanka Trump’s brand. The group they were working for, a New York non-profit called China Labor Watch, obtained evidence of forced overtime and pay as low as $1 an hour, as well as a video of a manager berating a worker for apparently arranging shoes in the wrong order.

“If I see them f---ing messed up again,” the manager yells, “I’ll beat you right here.” Another worker was left with blood dripping from his head after a manager hit him with the sharp end of a high heeled shoe , according to three eyewitnesses who spoke to the AP.

The Huajian Group, which runs the factories where the abuses allegedly occurred, has called the charges “completely not true to the facts.”

The investigators were released after 30 days, but the bail conditions — restrictions on travel, regular meetings with the police — have made it hard for Hua to find work.

Hua was ordered not to speak to the media and declined to comment for this story.

Ivanka Trump, who still owns but no longer closely manages her namesake brand, has remained silent about human rights issues within her brand’s supply chain — and labor conditions in China, where tons of her products are made and a generation of women like Deng has left their children to go work.

“As a public figure, she has the ability and resources to not only work on labor conditions at her own brand’s factories, but also to help improve labor conditions of the global supply chain as a whole,” said China Labor Watch founder Li Qiang. “However, she did not use her influence to do these things.”

Trump’s brand and spokesman declined to comment for this story, but in her 2017 best-seller, “Women Who Work,” Trump spoke about her commitment to improving “the lives of countless women and girls” and acknowledged that her father’s presidential campaign gave her “an unprecedented opportunity to advocate for change.”

Her daughter, Arabella, who is one year younger than Chen Chen, has also been an inspiration.

“When I think about the opportunities Arabella will have available to her in the United States, compared with some of the six hundred million girls growing up in developing countries, I’m even more inspired to make a difference,” she wrote.

Arabella and her two little brothers are her “greatest passion,” Ivanka Trump wrote. “I’m the first person they see in the morning, and the last to give kisses at night.”

Deng, meanwhile, has traded life with her kids for a mirrored room at a karaoke parlor, where she sells drinks and snacks on the 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift. Days she spends in a dormitory, where she and a co-worker share a bed with a Snoopy headboard. Room and board are free, but she makes less than 2000 yuan ($316) a month. It’s not enough.

Neighbors in their small, hardscrabble town on the outskirts of Xiangyang, in central China’s Hubei province, seem convinced Hua sold state secrets to the U.S., Deng said. The family worries Hua could get plucked up by police any day and vanish from their lives again. But Deng said she has no regrets.

“Maybe he’s not such a big, important person,” she said. “But every time he helps a worker resolve a problem, put yourself in that person’s position. Personally, I think it’s a very meaningful thing to do.”

Deng said her children have become more subdued since their father’s time in jail.

“The shadow is that when they don’t see their father, they keep calling him,” she said. Bo Bo has grown reasonable beyond his years. “He’s such a small child but when he talks he seems just like an adult,” Deng said, while Chen Chen tends to follow her dad around. “My daughter has never asked about what happened, but I can sense she knows many things.”

On a recent Sunday off, Deng’s children wandered in and out of the kitchen as she cooked. Their house is so cold everyone keeps their coats on inside.

At 5 p.m., when it was time for Deng to go back to work, Bo Bo darted around his mom. Chen Chen sat at a small table nearby, coloring.

“Do you want to see mama off?” Deng called to her daughter.

“No,” Chen Chen muttered.

Deng tried again: “Come on, what’s wrong? You’re not happy?”

Chen Chen stared at her pink marker.

Finally, Deng had to go. She mussed her son’s hair as they walked out into the last light of day. Bo Bo closed the big metal gate after his mom.

Chen Chen kept coloring.

___

Associated Press researchers Fu Ting and Chen Si contributed to this report.

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