The cry for help, a neatly folded letter stuffed inside a package of Halloween decorations sold at Kmart, traveled 5,000 miles from China into the hands of a mother of two in Oregon.
Scrawling in wobbly English on a sheet of onionskin paper, the writer said he was imprisoned at a labor camp in this northeastern Chinese town, where, he said, inmates toiled seven days a week, their 15-hour days haunted by sadistic guards.
“Sir: If you occasionally buy this product, please kindly resend this letter to the World Human Right Organization,” said the note, which was tucked between two ersatz tombstones and fell out when the woman, Julie Keith, opened the box in her living room in October.
“Thousands people here who are under the persicution of the Chinese Communist Party Government will thank and remember you forever,” the letter said.
The letter drew international media coverage and widespread attention to China’s opaque system of “re-education through labor,” a collection of penal colonies where petty criminals, religious offenders and critics of the government can be given up to four-year sentences by the police without trial.
However, the letter writer remained a mystery, the subject of speculation over whether he or she was a real inmate or a creative activist simply trying to draw attention to the issue.
INMATES SPEAK OUT
Last month, though, during an interview to discuss China’s labor camps, a 47-year-old former inmate at the Masanjia camp said he was the letter’s author. The man, a Beijing resident and adherent of Falun Gong, the outlawed spiritual practice, said it was one of 20 such letters he secretly wrote over the course of two years. He then stashed them inside products whose English-language packaging, he said, made it likely they were destined for the West.
“For a long time I would fantasize about some of the letters being discovered overseas, but over time I just gave up hope and forgot about them,” said the man, who asked that only his last name, Zhang, be published for fear of reprisal.
He knew well the practices of the camp in question, which were corroborated by other inmates, and he spoke as other inmates did of their work preparing mock tombstones. His handwriting and modest knowledge of English matched those of the letter, although it was impossible to know for sure whether there were perhaps other letter writers, one of whose messages might have reached Oregon.
If Zhang’s account truly explains the letter’s origin, the feat represents one of the more successful campaigns by a follower of the Falun Gong movement, which is known for its high-profile attempts to embarrass the Chinese government after being labeled a cult and outlawed in 1999.
Emboldened by an unusually open public debate in China that has broken out here in recent months over the future of re-education through labor, scores of former inmates have come forward to tell their stories. In interviews with more than a dozen people who were imprisoned at Masanjia and other camps around the country, they described a catalog of horrific abuse, including frequent beatings, days of sleep deprivation and prisoners chained in painful positions for weeks on end.
Several former inmates recounted the death of a fellow inmate, either from suicide or an illness that went untreated by prison officials.