Your Halloween decorations may have been made by Chinese slaves. Oregonian Julie Keith learned this from a horrifying letter a slave laborer had slipped between two Styrofoam tombstones in a “Totally Ghoul” holiday kit she bought at Kmart. Care2 Causes told her story last December in “Chinese Labor Camp Inmate Smuggles Out Plea for Help In Kmart Product.” Since then, the letter writer has apparently been identified.
The letter described conditions in the Masanjia Labor Camp. Thousands of inmates worked 15 hours a day, seven days a week, on pain of beatings and torture, the whistleblower wrote. These were not convicts: they were presumed guilty, usually of political crimes or subscribing to a banned religion, and imprisoned without trials.
Keith sought help. Human rights organizations didn’t respond, and U.S. customs officials said there was nothing they could do besides put her report in a folder, though they now call the allegations an “investigative priority.” Ignored by authorities, Keith posted the letter on Facebook. Journalists picked up the story. One outlet, CNN, launched a search for the letter’s author, and remarkably, it seems that they found him.
Speaking under the alias Mr. Zhang, the self-proclaimed writer, who had since been released from Masanjia, told CNN, “the first thing they do is to take your human dignity away and humiliate you.” Zhang said the prison used beatings, sleep deprivation and torture to control inmates. Another former inmate, Liu Hua, has said the camp was “hell on earth.” She described guards ordering other prisoners to beat her and losing consciousness during one such assault; when she awoke, she was forced back to work.
A third former inmate said guards chained detainees up and sexually abused them. Chen Shenchun, who received a two-year sentence for continuing a petition campaign to recover unpaid wages from a state-owned factory, told of electric batons left on her skin so long she could smell burning flesh, and of being dragged by her hair.
China arrested Zhang a few months before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, apparently because he was a follower of Falun Gong, which China considers a cult and has outlawed. Falun Gong is a spiritual movement that claims to be based on Buddhism. Zhang and others say that Masanjia’s guards were particularly rough on Falun Gong members, who may have constituted about half the camp’s population. A report from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom found that the Falun Gong are subject to arbitrary arrest, long detentions and torture, which has resulted in 3,500 deaths. They make up two-thirds of the alleged torture victims whose cases make it to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture.
Other inmates were relegated to labor camps for criticizing the government or for petty crimes.
Zhang wrote 20 letters over two years about the plight of the prison camp’s inmates and packaged them in Halloween decoration kits, which was no small feat. He had to procure paper and a pen, neither of which prisoners were allowed to have. The only time he could write was during the already inadequate sleeping period, but even then the lights were kept on and guards watched every move. Zhang had to lay on his side with his back to the guard and prop the paper on his pillow, painstakingly spelling out the English he learned in college, then smuggle the missives into boxes that looked like they were headed for English-speaking countries.
His bravery and hard work, along with Keith’s determination to help, shone a light on Chinese “Ideological Education Schools.” China’s Communist party claims that it will stop using forced labor by the end of 2013. Masanjia has closed down, but it is only one of more than 300 Chinese labor camps, according to Amnesty International. A China researcher at the organization, Corinna-Barbara Francis, says closing the camps would be hard to do because they make money, and not just from the inmates’ labor. Prison guards collect bribes to ease up on particular detainees or even release them early. “Given the serious money being made in these places, the economic incentive to keep the system going is really powerful,” Francis said.
While Zhang is free, thousands of others continue to suffer in reeducation camps that treat inmates as slaves, while calling them “students.” This is one more reason not to buy products made in China.