‘The smell of burning flesh filled the room’: Workers reveal hellish conditions in Chinese labour camp where man hid letter pleading for help that was found U.S. store’s decorations box
The author of a cry for help tucked into a box of Halloween decorations from China has come forward to tell the story behind his desperate letter.
The letter about horrendous working conditions at a Chinese labour camp was found by Julie Keith, a mother of two in Portland, Oregon, stuffed between the styrofoam headstones of the Totally Ghoul decoration box sold at Kmart.
The unsigned note began: ‘Sir: If you occasionally buy this product, please kindly resend this letter to the World Human Right Organization’
Plea for help: The letter, pictured, came in a box of Halloween decorations purchased at Kmart
‘Thousands people here who are under the persicution
There was some doubt as to the letter’s authenticity when it was uncovered in October, but now a former inmate at the Masanjia camp in Shenyang, has come forward as the author.
Former inmate Chen Shenchun
Mr Zhang, a 47-year-old from Beijing who can only be identified by his surname for safety, said he secretly wrote 20 letters over two years at the camp.
Barred from having pens and paper, Mr Zhang said he stole a set from a desk while cleaning a prison office one day.
He stashed his notes inside products with English packaging, hoping they would make it to someone who could come to the workers’ rescue.
‘Over time I just gave up hope and forgot about them,’ Mr Zhang said in an interview with the New York Times.
Mr Zhang wrote that labourers are forced to work for 15 hours a day without time off on the weekends and holidays.
In broken English he continued: ‘Otherwise, they will suffer torturement, beat and rude remark.
His plea said workers at the labour camp make only 10 yuan per month – the equivalent to $1.61.
Liu Hua, imprisoned at Masanjia three times
Labour camps house petty criminals, religious offenders and government critics, who can receive four-year sentences without trial.
China’s re-education through labour system of punishment allows for detention without trial.
Other workers from the Masanjia Labor Camp and various camps from around the country have been joined Mr Zhang in revealing the conditions there.
‘Sometimes the guards would drag me around by my hair or apply electric batons to my skin for so long, the smell of burning flesh would fill the room,’ Chen Shenchun, 55, told the New York Times.
She was given a two-year sentence for pursuing unpaid wages she was owed from her job at a state-owned factory. Many of the inmates, like Ms Shenchun, are sent there for lodging persistent complaints against the government.
Mr Zhang, author of the letter
‘I still can’t forget the pleas and howling. That place is a living hell,’ said Liu Hua, 51, who was imprisoned at Masanjia on three separate occasions.
It is believed Mr Zhang was imprisoned as a follower of the Falun Gong religious movement, which the Chinese government banned in 1999.
Roughly half of Masanjia’s population is made up of Falun Gong practitioners or other religious groups.
Masanjia labor camp is located in the industrialised capital of the Liaoning Province in northeast China.
MR ZHANG’S PLEADING LETTER FROM CHINA IN FULL
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
This product produced by Unit 8, Department 2, Mashanjla Labour Camp, Shen Young, Liaoning, China.
People who work here have to work 15 hours a day without Saturday (or) Sunday break and any holidays, otherwise they will suffer torturement
People who work here suffer punishment 1-3 years averagelly
Other prisoners agreed that the worst abuse was directed at Falun Gong members who refused to renounce their faith.
Alongside the production work there are hours of ‘re-education classes’ involving endless repetition of camp rules or singing of patriotic songs while standing in the sun.
People like Mr Zhang who speak out about the cruelty of the camps can often find themselves severely punished.
Journalist and former New York Times photographer Du Bin, who released a documentary on the Masanjia camp featuring interviews with former inmates has been detained by security officials since May 31, according to his sister.
Most of the products are made for use in China, but inmates say they also made coat linings labelled ‘Made In Italy’ and Christmas wreaths for South Korea, among other items for export.
Amnesty International believes there are more than 300 of these camps.
Julie Keith said that when she first opened the box with her daughters and found the note, she was sceptical. It was only when she looked the labour camp up online that she began to worry about the its author.
The camp drew press attention again in April when Beijing-based Lens Magazine published accounts by former detainees, in which they described being shocked with electric batons, starved, and beaten.
The magazine quoted the diary of Masanjia inmate Wang Guilan as saying the camp accepted pregnant women and disabled individuals, forcing them to work for up to 14 hours a day, or risk being beaten.
In an interview with Radio Free Asia’s Mandarin Service in January, Ms Guilan said that guards at the Masanjia women’s camp chained detainees up and tortured them in hideous ways, including sexually.
A Kmart spokesman, said in a statement that an internal investigation uncovered no violations of company rules that bar the use of forced labour.
The Chinese Communist Party announced this year that it would end the practice by the end of 2013, but said there has been no further public detail.