It is very easy to take freedom for granted. Many people in America act as if it would be 100% impossible for the American government to ever oppress its citizens, imprison them without cause, or kill them with impunity. Despite the fact that the last two years’ National Defense Authorization Acts include language allowing for the indefinite detention without trial or due process of American citizens suspected of terrorism, many still see a Nazi, Soviet, or Mao style government as an impossibility in America. But 67 years ago American citizens of Japanese descent were forced to live in concentration camps on American soil by our government–although it should be noted that the conditions and purpose of these camps were quite different than the Nazi’s or Stalin.
America helped end the Nazi concentration camps and slaughter of innocent Jews and others, but allowed Stalin to kill 12 million people in his forced labor camps, not including those executed never having been sent to a camp. Fast forward to America 2012, and one of the biggest U.S. trade partners also run an oppressive, murderous regime, with many enemies of the government forced into reeducation through labor camps. A reminder of the conditions which many of the Chinese laborers whose products we use are subjected to came from an unlikely place. After a box sat around collecting dust for a year, an American worker opened the Halloween kit to find a letter from a Chinese laborer hidden inside. According to this article from Oregonlive.com, it was a desperate plea for help from a political prisoner placed in a force labor camp by the Chinese government. Some excerpts from the letter include:
“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…
“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)…
“People who work here, suffer punishment 1-3 years averagely, but without Court Sentence (unlaw 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 article notes that 10 yuan is the equivalent of $1.61, and that the letter also included which camp it had been sent from. Whoever the author was almost certainly took an extreme risk to himself, fellow laborers, and any free family he or she may have had. The letter said the Halloween decorations had been made in the Masanjia labor camp in Shenyang by department 2 in unit 8. Now that this letter has gotten out to the public, it is chilling to think what may happen to those in the camp and department from where it came. The women who originally found the letter posted it on facebook, unsure of how to proceed.
It may have been a better idea to refer the letter to American officials who could keep the source secret while investigating, but in an international incident like this, especially involving a powerful player like China, it is unlikely anything would come from a government investigation. Therefore the public outcry which this letter should cause may be more powerful than an official investigation. What we can at least hope for are a more aware public who go out of their way to buy non-Chinese made products. Also, since the kit was originally sold by K-Mart, they have launched their own investigation, and could very well succumb to public pressure to stop buying from that Chinese source. Although the letter has not been officially confirmed, the Human Rights Watch had the following comment:
“We’re in no position to confirm the veracity or origin of this,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “I think it is fair to say the conditions described in the letter certainly conform to what we know about conditions in re-education through labor camps.”
China’s re-education through labor is a system of punishment that allows for detention without trial. Various reports allege followers of the banned spiritual group, Falun Gong, are sent to the reform camps – claims supported in the letter – but the facts are difficult to confirm.
Although the Falun Gong is considered by the Chinese government to be a terrorist group, it is widely accepted that they are simply political opponents to the Chinese government, and therefore imprisoned because of their opposition to the oppressive government. As individuals what we can do is check the labels on what we buy, and stop buying useless things made in China. Halloween decorations can be made at home, and many other useless Chinese made toys can be boycotted, instead of collecting dust in a closet. The U.S. should not be supporting human rights violating governments, therefore a conversation about ending trade ties with China is a legitimate exercise. Public pressure on companies to not do business with China, and public pressure on the government to stop doing business with China are two things which we can do as individuals.
But also important is ensuring that we are never in the same position as the Chinese citizens, oppressed and imprisoned by our government. The first step is admitting the U.S. has a problem–for example the indefinite detainment clause in the NDAA. The next step is retaking control over our government, decentralizing it, giving states back their power, restoring and protecting individual liberty ensured by the bill of rights, and restoring enough checks and balances as to never become powerless in the wake of dictatorial government. Reforming our own government to the standards of the Constitution will lead to a domino effect of liberty throughout the world, as the U.S. would no longer be in a position to prop up human rights abusing regimes through trade, foreign aide, and military intervention. Only through individual freedom can we hope to live in a world free of coercion, free of forced labor camps, and free to pursue happiness–whatever version of happiness to which you subscribe.