China

12.27.12

Are Your Christmas Gifts Made in the Chinese Gulag?

A startling letter found in an Oregon Kmart purports to reveal the links between Christmas shopping and forced labor in China.

What if Santa’s elves were actually Chinese prisoners?

In the pre-Christmas rush, when big box stores and e-commerce websites slash prices, few consumers want to think about where those presents under the tree actually come from.

Yet a recent article in The Oregonian has traced Santa’s global path back to its source—and it appears to be a Chinese prison, not the North Pole.

According to the article, Julie Keith, a charity worker in Oregon, found a handwritten plea for help in a package of Halloween decorations she had purchased from Kmart. The note—scrawled in a combination of Chinese and English—was purportedly written by a prisoner in Unit Eight, Department Two, at the Masanjia Labor Camp, a notorious gulag in China’s frigid Liaoning province, which borders North Korea.

“Sir,” the letter began. “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 of the Chinese Communist Party Government will thank and remember you forever.”

The writer, who is unnamed, goes on to say: “People who work here have to work 15 hours a day without Saturday, Sunday break and any holidays. Otherwise, they will suffer torturement, beat and rude remark. Nearly no payment (10 yuan/1 month),”—an amount equivalent to $1.60.

While the specifics of the letter’s claims cannot be verified, in 2011, Al Jazeera English aired a devastating segment on China’s estimated 5.5 million forced laborers, who make the Christmas lights, Homer Simpson slippers, and other products that clutter homes across the globe. After the segment aired, the Chinese government denied the charges and expelled the channel’s foreign correspondent, Melissa Chan, reportedly as punishment for embarrassing the regime. “Media concerned know in their heart what they did wrong,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei explained afterward.

According to human-rights advocates, there are an estimated 1,000 prison factories and farms in China, a gulag network known as the Laogai. China’s forced-labor force extends beyond the Laogai to a system of reeducation through work—an extrajudicial abyss where Chinese police send undesirables for up to three years without a trial, human-rights advocates say. The Chinese Foreign Ministry did not respond to calls for comment.

In theory, reeducation through labor is meant to correct subversive minds through hard work. In practice, however, analysts say these reeducation camps function as sweatshop-like prisons that do little more than make officials rich.

Rights advocates say that many of those chained to the factory floor are followers of the banned spiritual group Falun Gong, who have allegedly been raped, tortured, and killed in Chinese penal colonies.The letter that Keith discovered said that Falun Gong practitioners at the camp “often suffer more punishment than others” because they refuse to apologize for their beliefs.

Alarmed by the letter and the idea that she possibly contributed to the suffering of Chinese laborers toiling in the gulag, Keith published a scanned copy of the note online. When contacted by The Oregonian, Sears, which owns Kmart, promised to investigate.

American law prohibits the importation of products made from forced labor, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is taking a look at the case. In the meantime, Keith has decided to boycott Chinese products as much as she possibly can, and she has encouraged others to do the same. “If I really don’t need it, I won’t buy it if it’s made in China,” she said. “This has really made me more aware. I hope it would make a difference.”

Sophie Richardson, the China director at Human Rights Watch, says that both consumers and companies must choose if they want cheap goods made by shackled hands. “People want to buy products for lowest possible price, but what is the true cost of these things?” she said.

While corporations have global compliance policies, consumers ultimately have the power to ensure that human rights are respected in the manufacturing process. Unfortunately, analysts say that human rights don’t rank that highly on Christmas wish lists or factor heavily into corporate bottom lines.

“Market forces often outweigh legal and ethical the dimensions of this problem,” said Richardson. “Companies want the cheapest possible labor and the Chinese government is certainly happy to provide that.”