The story behind a moving plea sent from a forced laborer in a Chinese work camp to a family in Oregon will probably never be known in full—but its revelation just two days before Christmas has sparked a national discussion about human rights abuses in China, and the dark side of the U.S.-China relationship.
Julie Keith, 42, from Portland, Oregon, opened a long-forgotten 17-piece Halloween Graveyard Kit last October, and found a message from a Chinese labor camp.
“As I opened some of the styrofoam headstones, a note popped out. I opened the note and it was from this person pleading for help in the labor camp in China, and I wasn’t sure what to do with it,” she said.
The note’s message was troubling.
“If you occasionally buy this product, please kindly resend this letter to the World Human Right Organization,” the opening lines of the note said, written in slightly broken English. “Thousands people here who are under the persicution [sic] of the Chinese Communist Party Government will thank and remember you forever.”
The kit came from the notorious Masanjia Labor Camp in Shenyang, a city in the northeastern Liaoning Province.
“People who work here, suffer punishment 1-3 years averagely [sic], but without Court Sentence (unlaw [sic] punishment). Many of them are Falun Gong practitioners, who are totally innocent people only because they have different believe to CCPG. They often suffer more punishment than others,” the note said.
Laborers are made to work 15 hours a day, seven days a week, or else face torture and beatings; and they get only 10 yuan (about $1.60) per month, according to the letter.
Julie Keith took a photograph of the letter and put it on her Facebook page; friends were shocked. She was referred to Amnesty International, and then to the Oregonian, which on Dec. 23 published the story that has now found a worldwide audience.
In an interview with the independent New Tang Dynasty Television network, Keith said: “I googled the labor camp, and it just horrified me, the stories coming from there.”
The accounts of other survivors of that concentration camp, the notorious Masanjia Labor Camp, depict extraordinarily harsh and abusive conditions, with guards particularly singling out practitioners of Falun Gong, referred to in the letter, for extreme forms of torture and physical punishment.
Zhao Suhuan, now a human rights activist in New York, is a Falun Gong practitioner who was detained in Masanjia. In a previous interview with New Epoch Weekly she described how she had her inner thighs attacked by prison guards for three days (mostly using fingernails). The guard then kicked and stomped her festering legs, and prevented her from sleeping.
Later, she was tied up and beaten in the back of the head. And at one point she was attacked by guards with electric batons for five days, beaten bloody to the point that she was unrecognizable. It was an attempt to have her renounce her faith in Falun Gong—but she never gave in, and now lives in the United States.
There are other known cases of Falun Gong practitioners being tortured in Masanjia, who may be the single largest population in the camp.
Pan Qi, for example, another Falun Gong practitioner in New York, knew the conditions the letter Julie Keith received must have been written under.
“I know how it feels, because I did the same forced labor in Masanjia. All those ornaments and decorations, I’ve also done them, and it’s very painful. The working time is long,” she said.
Their watches were confiscated, so she could not tell the time, but in the interview with NTD she calculated that work would run from early morning to 9 or 10 p.m. at night. “If there’s overtime then you worked overnight. Hardly any rest and the next day you have to work again. I didn’t know people could be forced to work like that. Many people were driven mad. Some couldn’t finish the quotas, and they were locked up in a small room.”
According to Levi Browde, executive director of the Falun Dafa Information Center, Masanjia is particularly brutal in its torture and extreme conditions.
“Unlike most labor camps where officials instigate inmates to torture other inmates, in Masanjia former prisoners report that officials do the torturing themselves and do so systematically,” Browde wrote in an email.
The case has attracted the attention of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations division, which conducts criminal investigations of violations of U.S. customs law.
“This is an extraordinary circumstance,” said Andrew Munoz, public affairs officer at ICE in Seattle, in a telephone interview. “Normally we wouldn’t confirm or deny the existence of an investigation, but because it came to us from a news organization, the cat’s already out of the bag on that, so we can say we’ve begun initial enquiries.”
ICE cannot comment further on the specific case “until we have some type of enforcement action,” Munoz said.
Whether that is possible in this case is difficult to determine. ICE relies on local law enforcement authorities to assist in investigations, with the goal of preventing the entry into the United States of goods made by forced labor.
However, the Masanjia Labor Camp is an instrument of the Chinese communist security apparatus and so local law enforcement agencies in this case are implicated in the actions the ICE is investigating. The ICE has no jurisdiction over the regime’s forced labor system.
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