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
Tree leaves were turning yellow and red in Damascus, Oregon, in late October. Competing with fall foliage for attention were Halloween decorations, which adorned almost every house in this sleepy middle-class suburb of Portland on America’s Pacific West Coast.
A few pumpkins sat on the steps leading to Julie Keith’s house, while three fake tombstones greeted visitors in the front porch – as they did last year.
“I feel obligated to use them every year now because I feel they need to have some worth,” said Keith, 43, who lives here with her husband and their two young children. “I am sad for the people who have to endure torture to make these silly decorations.”
The decorations came in a $29 “Totally Ghoul” toy set that Keith purchased in a local Kmart store in 2011. When she opened the package before Halloween last year, a letter fell out.
In broken English mixed with Chinese, the author cried for help: “If you occasionally (sic) buy this product, please kindly resend this letter to the World Human Right Organization. Thousands people here… will thank and remember you forever.”
Long hours, abuse
The letter went on to detail grueling hours, verbal and physical abuses as well as torture that inmates making the products had to endure – all in a place called Masanjia Labor Camp in China.
“It was surprising at first and I didn’t know if it was a hoax,” recalled Keith, a program manager at a company that runs a chain of thrift stores and donation centers. “Once I read the letter and researched on the Internet, I realized that this may be the real deal.
“I knew there are labor camps in China, but this slammed me in the face. I had no idea if this person was still alive or dead or in the camp – it’s extraordinary that it was able to come all the way from China.”
Keith heeded the writer’s call by reaching out to human rights groups but received no response. She then posted the letter on Facebook, which prompted the local Oregonian newspaper to run a front-page article.
As word of Keith’s unusual Halloween discovery spread, her story turned into international news, throwing a spotlight on one of China’s most notorious labor camps – and the controversial system behind them.
Then one morning recently, some 6,000 miles away from Damascus, a bespectacled middle-aged Chinese man walked into the CNN office in Beijing to talk to us about this strange discovery half a world away. His voice was soft and calm but from time to time it would betray a hint of both agony and force.
“I saw the packaging and figured the products were bound for some English-speaking countries,” he said. “I knew about Christmas but we were making skulls and the like – I really didn’t know much about Halloween.
“But I had this idea of telling the outside world what was happening there – it was a revelation even to someone like me who had spent my entire life in China.”
After months of searching, through a trusted source and with some good luck, CNN found the man who says he wrote the letter that Keith found in her Halloween decorations. Released from the labor camp but afraid to be sent back, he agreed to his first television interview on the condition that CNN concealed his identity.
“Mr. Zhang” – as he would be called – is a follower of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, branded by the Chinese government as an evil cult and outlawed since 1999. He claims he was detained by police several months before the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing and sentenced to two and a half years in the Masanjia labor camp in northeastern China.
“For people who have never been there, it’s impossible to imagine,” he said. “The first thing they do is to take your human dignity away and humiliate you.”
Zhang recounted the systematic use of beatings, sleep deprivation and torture, especially targeting those like him who refused to repent. Some gruesome details are too specific to him to be reported.
“Making products turned out to be an escape from the horrible violence,” he said. “We thought we could protect ourselves, and avoid verbal and physical assaults as long as we worked and did the job well.”
Moving forward with his plan to expose the horror in the camp, he secretly tore off pages from exercise books meant for political indoctrination sessions as inmates were barred from having paper. He also befriended a minor criminal from his hometown – a monitor for the guards – who managed to get him another banned item: a ball pen refill.
“I hid it in a hollow space in the bed stand – and only got time to write late at night when everyone else had fallen asleep,” he recalled. “The lights were always on in the camp and there was a man on duty in every room to keep an eye on us.”
Demonstrating his awkward position in bed, he continued: “I lay on my side with my face toward the wall so he could only see my back. I placed the paper on my pillow and wrote on it slowly.”
A college graduate, he said it took him two or three days to finish a single letter through this risky and painstaking process. “I tried to fill as much space as possible on each sheet,” he said. “Every letter was slightly different because I had to improvise – I remember writing SOS in some but not in others.
“Writing in English was very hard for me. I had studied the language but had never practiced speaking or writing much. That’s why I included some Chinese words to make sure the message would not be misunderstood because of my English mistakes.”
He slipped 20 letters into Halloween decoration packaging in 2008 and at least one, against all odds, got out and made headlines four years later.
Inside the camp
In late October, the autumn colors were fading fast in Masanjia Township as temperatures plunged to barely above freezing overnight. Driving towards town, the landscape was a mixture of barren farmland and mothballed factories with banners advertising cheap rent.
The town itself sits outside Shenyang, the provincial capital of Liaoning and an industrial base of eight million residents. If not for the labor camp infamy, it would be just another backwater in China’s northeastern rust belt.
A national emblem and two signs adorned an unguarded entrance in the center of town. One displayed “Liaoning Province Masanjia Labor” with the final word of “Camp” missing; the other read “Liaoning Province Ideological Education School.”
Inside the complex, which seemed to be closed – though officials would not confirm this – fields covered with haystacks and dried corn separated three clusters of low-rise buildings. Administrative offices were painted white, female inmates’ quarters mostly red and male’s largely beige. High blue concrete walls or green fences glinted with barbwire surrounding the inmate areas, as guard towers loomed above each corner.
“Wow, they’ve removed the sign in front the men’s camp,” marveled Liu Hua, pointing at an unmarked gate. “Look, that warehouse-looking building over there was where men like Zhang used to work.”
As the van carrying her and the CNN crew stopped near the women’s quarters, powerful memories rushed back to this 50-year-old farmer from a nearby village.
“I was confined in that building – Room 209,” she said while standing outside the fence. “We had the 4:15 a.m. wake-up call, worked from 6 a.m. to noon, got a 30-minute lunch and bathroom break, and resumed working until 5:30 p.m. Sometimes we had to stay up until midnight if there was too much work – and if you couldn’t finish your work, you would be punished.”