Voices from China

From Chinese labor camp inmates to you: Help!

(November 20, 2013) How did Halloween decorations made by inmates at a notorious Chinese labor camp end up on US store shelves?

By Lisa Peryman for Probe International

That question still remains unanswered after a Portland, Oregon woman found a cry for help written by an inmate at one of China’s notorious re-education through labor (RTL) prison farms, folded into eighths and buried in styrofoam, upon opening a US$29 “Totally Ghoul” Halloween toy set, purchased at a local Kmart store in 2011 and opened a year later.

The "Totally Ghoul" Halloween tombstone set. Credit: The Daily Mail UK.

The “Totally Ghoul” Halloween tombstone set. Credit: The Daily Mail UK.

The enclosed message — written by a man now known as Mr. Zhang — asked whoever found his letter to forward it to the “World Human Rights Organization” in the hopes of exposing abuses suffered by inmates at China’s Masanjia labor camp for men, where Zhang says prisoners were forced to work 15 hours a day, seven days a week for around CDN$1.71 a month, making products for commercial retail. All told, Mr. Zhang managed to tuck away 20 such letters inside Halloween decoration packaging in one year, including the one found by Julie Keith, a Goodwill worker in Portland, which reads:


If you occasionally buy this product, please kindly resend this letter to the World Human Right Organization. Thousands people here who are under the persicution [sic] of the Chinese Communist Party Government will thank and remember you forever.

This product produced by Unit 8, Department 2, Mashanjla Labour Camp, Shen Young, Liaoning, China.

People who work here have to work 15 hours a day without Saturday (or) Sunday break and any holidays, otherwise they will suffer torturement [sic], beat and rude remark, nearly no payment (10 Yuan/one month).

People who work here suffer punishment 1-3 years averagelly [sic], but without court sentence. Many of them are Falun Gong practitioners who are totally innocent people. Only because they have different believe [sic] to the CCPG, they often suffer more punishment than others.

Credit: The Daily Mail UK.

Mr. Zhang’s Halloween SOS. Credit: The Daily Mail UK.

On discovery of Mr. Zhang’s letter, Ms. Keith rallied international media coverage for Mr. Zhang’s plight and was later publicly thanked by Mr. Zhang for her help.

Sent to Masanjia in the lead-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, Mr. Zhang’s message-in-a-novelty-tombstone story has since come full circle after he spoke, on release, to a CNN news office in Beijing — that story, published earlier this month, follows below.

In the CNN interview, Mr. Zhang recounts the systematic use of beatings, sleep deprivation and torture. In his case, Mr. Zhang revealed making products actually presented a way to escape “the horrible violence” he says he and other inmates would have otherwise faced for refusing to repent their ties to the Falun Gong spiritual movement, branded as a cult in China.

Modeled on the Soviet Gulag, China’s “re-education through labor” scheme (known as laojiao) is an arbitrary system without judicial review, originally devised as a means of punishment and reform in the 1950s. Over the years it has been utilized not only as a source of free labor by the Chinese state but also as a way to isolate so-called “bad elements” — intellectual dissidents, government critics, whistleblowers on official corruption, petty offenders, Falun Gong practitioners, even impoverished and neglected children at one point, among others.

In addition to Mr. Zhang, the CNN story also details the experiences of Liu Hua, a former inmate at the Masanjia women’s facility, who figured prominently in a Probe International spotlight on RTL abuses published in May of this year.

Accusations of RTL-related human rights abuses rattled China throughout 2013 after a series of controversial cases and first-hand accounts provoked a national furor, resulting in suspended publication for one gutsy magazine that went public with a harrowing 14-page RTL exposé published in April [see “New documentaries take on the horrors of China’s labor camp system”].

CNN reports Masanjia is one of hundreds of labor camps created by China’s RTL scheme. In response to growing public pressure, however, the country’s new leadership told a recent U.N.-organized human rights forum that it was “working intensively to formulate a plan” to reform the laojiao system.

Western consumers are advised to lobby their own governments for legislation banning the sale of products made by forced labor and to ensure that this legislation is enforced.

For its part, Kmart owner Sears said although it had “found no evidence that production was subcontracted to a labor camp” during its investigation of the matter, it also said it no longer sourced from the company that supplied the “Totally Ghoul” Halloween line.

Maya Wang, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, emphasizes the need for improved supply chain supervision by multinational corporations.

“A lot of these camps are run like businesses and, if you look online, there are a lot of them advertising,” she says. “One would question how they get in touch with Western companies and whether or not Western companies have done due diligence when they procure services.”

Chinese labor camp inmate tells of true horror of Halloween ‘SOS’
By Steven Jiang, CNN
November 7, 2013

China’s Masanjia labor camp for men in the distance.

China’s Masanjia labor camp for men in the distance. Credit: Steven Jiang/CNN.

Story highlights:

  • Julie Keith discovered letter from a Chinese labor camp inmate in her Halloween decorations
  • Letter detailed life in camp, such as grueling hours, verbal and physical abuses
  • CNN eventually spoke to the inmate, who made products destined for the West
  • China’s new leadership may be ready to scrap the controversial labor camp system

Read the full report by CNN at the publisher’s website here.

1 reply »

  1. Dear Probe,

    It’s indeed unfortunate that China seemingly has learned about what is happening to inmates at the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba. As you know, many prisoners have not been charged with any crime, and yet they remain in confinement – and maybe even in worse conditions than their cousin-inmates in Chinese jails. Forced feeding is a horrible way to prevent prisoners to express their plight. Those inmates are also pleading for help. Perhaps you folks could do an article on that prison also, unless of course you can convince President Obama to honour his promise of closing it.

    Too bad the greatest democracy on the planet provides such a model for others to follow, would you not agree?


    On Tue, 3 Dec 2013 20:53:33 +0000

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