Relating to a Plea from China
Last month a Falun Gong practitioner and former prisoner in China admitted to writing a letter found by an Oregonian woman in her K-mart Halloween decorations.
The letter alleges the product was made in a Chinese labor camp by prisoners who work 15 hours a day and face torture and abuse. It requests, “Sir: If you occasionally buy this product, please kindly resend this letter to the World Human Right[s] Organization.”
The letter has drawn international attention to China’s system of “re-education through labor” or Laogai. It should also draw our attention to a few other important elements in this story:
1. We use more of these products than we think.
I spoke a while back with Harry Wu, a former Laogai prisoner, director of the Laogai Museum here in DC, and founder of the Laogai Research Foundation. In our interview, he said it’s difficult to trace the manufacturers of each part of an item we use.
Regarding these particular Halloween items in question, a spokesman at Kmart claims:
…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…
I can’t speak for Kmart, but Wu points out that this goes beyond the main supply factories.
The Laogai system produces broadly-used base products like coal, rubber, and chemicals. As an example taken from Wu, let’s say the Chinese government forces tortured prisoners to produce one of these dangerous chemicals, then sells the chemical to a plastic factory, which then sells the plastic to a clothes hanger factory, which then sells clothes hangers to Kmart.
How in the world do you follow that supply chain back to its source? And how can you do that for every single part of every single product?
Wu believes the solution is to boycott all products made in China. While that may not be possible, it does reflect the fact that this goes way beyond the item’s final sweatshop – all the way to the foundational materials that make up the things we use.
2. You can’t lend a hand when your arms are tied.
I hope American and international pressure will help China to reform their prison system and offer more freedom to religious groups like Falun Gong and Christian churches; but how much more powerful could our voice be without the debt burdens that further complicate our relationship with China?
US financial policy, which includes foreign policy, runs the risk of undermining the very valid and important work of US human rights advocates.
3. If a prisoner in the US had written this letter, would he be prosecuted as a whistleblower?
Perhaps not; but isn’t this protest letter a leak of Chinese security secrets? Questioning China’s status quo should not be celebrated as heroic by US leaders if the same action could be considered treason here. If we want to have any credibility regarding free speech abroad, we have to allow criticism of the government in our own backyard first.
Photo: Falun Gong Candlelight Vigil at US Capitol – by Edward Dai