Originally published Tuesday, June 11, 2013 at 8:50 PM--By ANDREW JACOBS, The New York Times
MASANJIA, China — The cry for help, a neatly folded letter stuffed
inside a package of Halloween decorations sold at Kmart, traveled
5,000 miles from China into the hands of a mother of two in Oregon.
A part of a letter found in a package of Halloween decorations.
Scrawling in wobbly English on a sheet of onionskin paper, the
writer said he was imprisoned at a labor camp in this northeastern
Chinese town, where he said inmates toiled seven days a week, their
15-hour days haunted by sadistic guards.
“Sir: If you occasionally buy this product, please kindly resend
this letter to the World Human Right Organization,” said the note,
which was tucked between two ersatz tombstones and fell out when the
woman, Julie Keith, opened the box in her living room last October.
“Thousands people here who are under the persicution of the Chinese
Communist Party Government will thank and remember you forever.”
The letter drew international news media coverage and widespread
attention to China’s opaque system of “re-education through labor,”
a collection of penal colonies where petty criminals, religious
offenders and critics of the government can be given up to four-year
sentences by the police without trial.
But the letter writer remained a mystery, the subject of speculation
over whether he or she was a real inmate or a creative activist
simply trying to draw attention to the issue.
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 last name, Zhang,
be published for fear of reprisal.
He knew well the practices of the camp in question, which was
corroborated by other inmates, and he spoke as other inmates did of
their work preparing mock tombstones. His handwriting and modest
knowledge of English matched those of the letter, although it was
impossible to know for sure whether there were perhaps other letter
writers, one of whose messages might have reached Oregon.
If Mr. Zhang’s account truly explains the letter’s origin, the feat
represents one of the more successful campaigns by a follower of the
Falun Gong movement, which is known for its high-profile attempts to
embarrass the Chinese government after being labeled a cult and
outlawed in 1999.
Emboldened by an unusually open public debate in China that has
broken out here in recent months over the future of re-education
through labor, scores of former inmates have come forward to tell
their stories. In interviews with more than a dozen people who were
imprisoned at Masanjia and other camps around the country, they
described a catalog of horrific abuse, including frequent beatings,
days of sleep deprivation and prisoners chained up in painful
positions for weeks on end.
Several former inmates recounted the death of a fellow inmate,
either from suicide or an illness that went untreated by prison
“Sometimes the guards would drag me around by my hair or apply
electric batons to my skin for so long, the smell of burning flesh
would fill the room,” said Chen Shenchun, 55, who was given a
two-year sentence for refusing to give up a petition campaign aimed
at recovering unpaid wages from her accounting job at a state-owned
According to former inmates, roughly half of Masanjia’s population
is made up of Falun Gong practitioners or members of underground
churches, with the rest a smattering of prostitutes, drug addicts
and petitioners whose efforts to seek redress for perceived
injustices had become an embarrassment for their hometown officials.
All agreed that the worst abuse was directed at Falun Gong members
who refused to renounce their faith. In addition to the electric
shocks, they said, guards would tie their limbs to four beds, and
gradually kick the beds farther apart. Some inmates would be left
that way for days, unfed and lying in their own excrement.
“I still can’t forget the pleas and howling,” said Liu Hua, 51, a
petitioner who was imprisoned at Masanjia on three separate
occasions. “That place is a living hell.”
Even if they found the work exhausting, many inmates described the
time spent in Masanjia’s workshops as a respite from mistreatment or
the hours of “re-education classes” that often entailed an endless
recitation of camp rules or the singing of patriotic songs while
standing in the broiling sun.
Much of the work involved producing clothing for the domestic market
or uniforms for the People’s Armed Police. But inmates say they also
assembled Christmas wreaths bound for South Korea, coat linings
stuffed with duck feathers that were labeled “Made in Italy” and
silk flowers that guards insisted would be sold in the United
States. “Whenever we were making goods for export, they would say,
‘You better take extra care with these,’ ” said Jia Yahui, 44, a
former inmate who now lives in New York.
Corinna-Barbara Francis, China researcher at Amnesty International,
said that given the abundant money-making opportunities, abolishing
or significantly reforming the system would prove daunting. In
addition to the profits earned from the inmate labor, prison
employees often solicit bribes for early release, or for better
treatment, from the families of those incarcerated. “Given the
serious money being made in these places, the economic incentive to
keep the system going is really powerful,” she said.
During labor shortages, inmates say Masanjia officials simply buy
small-time offenders from other cities on a sliding scale that
begins at 800 renminbi, or about $130, for six months of labor. They
include people like Zhang Ling, a 25-year-old from the eastern
coastal city of Dalian who said she was among a group of 50 young
women rounded up by the police last May during a crackdown on
illegal pyramid sales schemes and then sold to Masanjia. While
there, she sewed buttons on military uniforms but was released 10
months early after a brother paid for her release.
Masanjia officials did not respond to faxes and phone calls
requesting an interview. Approached one recent afternoon, a
half-dozen guards on a cigarette break outside the women’s work camp
refused to answer any questions. One guard, however, made a point of
correcting the way a question was phrased. “There are no prisoners
here,” she said sternly. “They are all students.”
Sears Holdings, the owner of Kmart, declined to make an executive
available for an interview. But in a brief statement, a company
spokesman, Howard Riefs, said an internal investigation prompted by
the discovery of the letter uncovered no violations of company rules
that bar the use of forced labor. He declined to provide the name of
the Chinese factory that produced the item, a $29.99 set of
Halloween decorations called “Totally Ghoul” that include plastic
spiders, synthetic cobwebs and a “bloody cloth.”
Although he was released from Masanjia in 2010, Mr. Zhang, the man
who said he wrote the letter, has vivid memories of producing the
plastic foam headstones, which were made to look old by painting
them with a sponge. “It was an especially difficult task,” he said.
“If the results were not to the liking of the guards, they would
make us do them again.” He estimated that inmates produced at least
1,000 headstones during the year he worked on them.
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.
Last December, Ms. Keith, the woman who bought the product in 2011
but did not open it until the following year, sent the letter she
found to the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency,
which said it would look into the matter. An agency spokesman,
citing protocol, said that he could not confirm whether an
investigation was under way, but that such cases generally took a
long time to pursue.
For Ms. Keith, a manager at Goodwill Industries, the experience has
been sobering. She said she previously knew little about China,
except that most of the household goods she bought were made there.
“When that note popped out and my daughter picked it up, I was
skeptical that it was real,” she said. “But then I Googled Masanjia
and realized, ‘Whoa, this is not a good place.’ ”