Made in China, in a Labor Camp


The “Made in China” label is famous worldwide, found on an immense array of consumer products that can be found in any shop, large or small. China’s massive manufacturing capabilities and export-based economy have earned it the nickname “the world’s factory.” But while any given American consumer can find an item in their desk drawer stamped with the words “Made in China,” they might be completely ignorant of the circumstance under which they are produced. One woman in Arizona, however, recently received a startling glimpse into the life of a Chinese forced laborer.

FOX News reports that Laura Wallace of Sierra Vista, Arizona was buying a purse at Wal-Mart, only to discover a note written in Chinese. Translated, it says:

“Inmates in the Yingshan Prison in Guangxi, China are working 14 hours daily with no break/rest at noon, continue working overtime until 12 midnight, and whoever doesn't finish his work will be beaten. Their meals are without oil and salt. Every month, the boss pays the inmate 2000 yuan [$289.99 USD], any additional dishes will be finished by the police. If the inmates are sick and need medicine, the cost will be deducted from the salary. Prison in China is unlike prison in America, horse cow goat pig dog” [an idiom indicating inhumane treatment].

The author of this note was almost certainly an inmate in China’s infamous laogai.

Laogai is short for Láodòng Gǎizào, or, “Reform through Labor.” This phrase has been used to refer to a broad network of factory-prisons, “black jails,” penal farms, and other forced labor camps comparable to the Soviet Union’s Gulags. The prison camp system goes back to the 1950s, when they were used to detain and exploit Mao’s “counterrevolutionary” foes. China’s socialist neighbor, the Soviet Union, had set up its first forced labor camp in 1919 and by the 1930s had hundreds of thousands of prisoners in Gulag camps across its continental span. With this experience to teach them, Soviet advisors helped Mao’s Chinese communists stand up their own network of similar camps throughout China. The unforgiving wasteland of northern Manchuria served as a Chinese Siberia where the most inhospitable and deadly camps were erected. Two biographers of Mao, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, estimate that as many as 27 million people died in the laogai camps during Mao’s rule.

In 1997, the Chinese government officially dropped the laogai phraseology, and simply began calling such forced labor institutions “prisons.” This did not spell an end to the forced labor system; instead, it simply drew a curtain over it. Increasingly, the laogai became intermingled with China’s economic and manufacturing boom.

National Review’s 2014 summary of the laogai system estimates that its “prisons,” factories, farms, and other facilities held between three and five million inmates. “They work 15-hour days, followed by two hours of evening indoctrination; at night they’re not allowed to move from their sleeping-spots till 5:30 rolls around, when they’re woken for another day of hard labor,” Josh Gelertner writes. “Fleas, bedbugs, and parasites are ubiquitous. The prisoners starve on meager supplies of bread, gruel, and vegetable soup. Once every two weeks they get a meal of pork broth.”

The United States government still has reason to believe that many manufactured products from China are produced under these atrocious conditions. A Department of Labor database notes that forced labor is used in the production of garments, toys, footwear, electronics, Christmas decorations, and artificial flowers, just to name a few. In fact, US Customs and Border Patrol goes further, maintaining a list of specific, identified factories and prisons employing forced labor whose products are sanctioned.

Nor is this purse in Sierra Vista the first Chinese product that has carried in it a secret message from its exploited maker. Such notes have turned up in Oregon and Northern Ireland as well. 

One note simply said, “I slave. Help me.”

China’s forced labor camps still exist. Political dissidents, human rights petitioners, and Falun Gong practitioners, among others, are still locked up and exploited without having committed any real crime. If products that say “Made in China” are in our pockets and on our office desks, don’t we need to know more about where they really come from?