Back in October, a woman in Portland found a letter written in English by someone claiming to be a labor camp inmate in Shenyang. “If you occasionally buy this product, please kindly resend this letter to the World Human Right Organization,” so it went. “Thousands people here who are under the persicution of the Chinese Communist Party Government will thank and remember you forever.”
The veracity was initially unverifiable. “We’re in no position to confirm the veracity or origin of this,” Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, told the Oregonian. But new details have emerged — specifically, a 47-year-old former inmate has come forward and claimed authorship of that and several other similar letters.
Last month, though, during an interview to discuss China’s labor camps, a 47-year-old former inmate at the Masanjia camp said he was the letter’s author. The man, a Beijing resident and adherent of Falun Gong, the outlawed spiritual practice, said it was one of 20 such letters he secretly wrote over the course of two years. He then stashed them inside products whose English-language packaging, he said, made it likely they were destined for the West.
“For a long time I would fantasize about some of the letters being discovered overseas, but over time I just gave up hope and forgot about them,” said the man, who asked that only his surname, Zhang, be published for fear of reprisal.
The handwriting apparently matches.
The rest of the story documents the torture and abuse of prisoners, with Falun Gong practitioners getting the worst of it.
Zhang, who produced plastic foam headstones, tells the story of how he smuggled the letters out.
His letter-writing subterfuge was complicated and risky. Barred from having pens and paper, Mr. Zhang said he stole a set from a desk one day while cleaning a prison office. He worked while his cellmates slept, he said, taking care not to wake those inmates — often drug addicts or convicted thieves — whose job it was to keep the others in line. He would roll up the letter and hide it inside the hollow steel bars of his bunk bed, he said.
There it would remain, sometimes for weeks, until a product designated for export was ready for packing. “Too early and it could fall out, too late and there would be no way to get it inside the box,” said Mr. Zhang, a technology professional who studied English in college. His account of life in the camp matched those of other inmates who said they produced the same Halloween-themed items.
Quartz notes that “an estimated 190,000 Chinese citizens are imprisoned in about 350 ‘re-education through labor’ detainment centers across the country.” In January, the government announced proposals to reform and possibly end “re-education through labor,” but even then, many people expressed skepticism.
Here’s Kmart’s response via Twitter:
@PhelimKine Our Global Compliance Program helps ensure vendors & factories follow all employment laws.Not doing so may result in termination
— Kmart (@Kmart) June 12, 2013
Behind Cry for Help From China Labor Camp (NY Times)