Texas businessman forced into forced labor in China’s ‘black box’ prison system for nine years

Jiangmen detention center in China where American Mark Swidan has been detained since 2012.

Dui Hua Foundation

An American businessman from Houston languishes in a Chinese prison and faces execution on questionable charges even as the Biden administration boycotts the Beijing Olympics on humanitarian grounds.

Mark Swidan, 46, was sentenced to death nearly three years ago after a trial amid serious due process violations that prompted the UN Human Rights Council to call for immediate release with repairs.

His mother said on social media that Swidan had lost 100 pounds, was forced to beg for food on his hands and knees and worked with toxic chemicals for 14 hours a day to make flowers silk for American distribution chains.

“They operate by their own set of rules – it’s a black box,” said John Kamm, president of Dui Hua, a human rights organization that helps people wrongfully imprisoned in China. “I have formally requested [the Chinese government] about Mark 40 times; I received written responses three or four times.


Texas Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz and Rep. Vicente Gonzalez did not respond to requests for comment on Swidan’s case and what they would do to help secure his release. The State Department also declined to comment on efforts to free Swidan.

Mark Swidan.jpg

Marc Swidan

Courtesy of Swidan Family Free Mark Campaign

None of this comes as a surprise to former Chinese prisoner Peter Humphrey, a British journalist who once worked for Reuters. He said that in his experience Western governments made little effort to rescue citizens falsely arrested in hostile foreign countries.

“They’d rather not rock the boat and tell families not to go to the media,” he said. “This is completely false advice. Our governments are saying this so as not to be dragged into more work. China is not a democracy governed by the rule of law. Governments should intervene loudly in these cases and seek a leverage against this crypto hostage-taking.”

Swidan was arrested in 2012 while traveling to China to obtain building materials for his architecture business. Police broke into Swidan’s bedroom while he was on the phone with his family and detained him as a witness in a narcotics case. He was later accused of being part of an 11-member international drug ring, according to the UN

The case was based on sketchy circumstantial evidence, including that he visited a warehouse once used by drug traffickers and was staying in a room once inhabited by a suspect. Swidan was not in the country when the drugs were produced, his supporters say.

Kamm believes Swidan is innocent based on what he learned about the case that dates back eight years.

“He steadfastly refused to admit guilt even if he had, he could have had a lesser sentence,” Kamm said. “The situation is so bad that Chinese officials confessed to me how embarrassed they were by what happened.”

But none of that matters in China’s justice system, Humphrey said, because it doesn’t bow to foreign pressure.

Humphrey was imprisoned with his wife from 2013 to 2015 for illegally acquiring personal data from Chinese citizens. He now dedicates his life to helping others in the same situation and worked on Swidan’s case.

“China has millions of detainees, and not a single person has had a fair and transparent trial,” Humphrey said. “He was probably presented as a scapegoat by the local authorities.”

In his experience lobbying for inmates, Humphrey has found that lawmakers are reluctant to get involved if charges relate to drugs or sex crimes, even if they are false, because they don’t want to be seen as helping anyone. one with a toxic accusation.

While other countries bow to pressure from the United States or other Western nations, Humphrey said China doesn’t care and will easily incarcerate Americans for the rest of their lives.

The State Department will not release the number of Americans currently detained or imprisoned in China, but Dui Hua puts the number at around 200.

Last month, the United States issued a travel advisory to China, warning Americans to exercise extreme caution due to “arbitrary application of local laws for purposes other than maintaining public order, including the use of exit bans”.

But good news could be on the horizon.

Both Kamm and Humphrey say they learned that senior State Department official Roger Carstens had made Swidan’s case a priority, along with those of two other Americans. Carstens was named Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs during the Trump administration.

“I believe the current administration is looking more closely at China than the previous administration,” Humphrey said. He added that families of prisoners participated in an online meeting in December with Carstens and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.

Katherine Swidan said at one point that she met with Carstens for four hours and gave him a drawing made by her son in prison, which now hangs in Carstens’ office.

The artwork was likely passed on by the US consulate in monthly meetings, which are mandated by the UN. No meeting has taken place since November, leading Swidan’s mother to imagine a dire scenario.

“I fear that he is dying and that no one will report on his condition,” she told the Washington Examiner. “I stay up all night hoping to hear from Mark or, God forbid, a knock on the door telling me he’s dead. There doesn’t seem to be any urgency.”

However, a State Department spokesperson said there was no indication that Swidan’s health had deteriorated recently.


“We are closely monitoring his well-being,” the spokesperson said. “We constantly advocate for fair treatment from the Chinese authorities. Outgoing mail flow, which had stopped for over a year, has resumed and Mark was recently able to send two letters.

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