Many Western consumers know that the cheap items we buy are made by people who are paid poorly. But fewer consumers know about the worshippers, political dissidents and others in China who are forced to make these items against their will.
In the fall of 2012, an Oregon mom was going through some Halloween decorations when something fell out of her package of styrofoam gravestones. It was a letter. She opened it up to find an anonymous plea asking the reader to report to a human rights organization about the Chinese forced labor camp where the decorations were made. Made in China: A Prisoner, an SOS Letter, and the Hidden Cost of America’s Cheap Goods by Amelia Pang is the story of that forced labor camp and the man who wrote the letter.
His name was Sun Yi. He was once an employed and happily married man, but because he was a Falun Gong practitioner (a meditation practice that the Chinese government considers a cult), he was sent to a forced labor camp called Mashanjia. China calls these camps laogai—“reeducation through labor” or “reform through labor.” In laogai, prisoners are forced to make goods that are sold around the world. Yi was kept at Mashanjia for several years, making decorations for nearly 20 hours every single day.
Readers should be aware that horrific violence occurs throughout the book. Pang's reporting provides an unflinching glimpse into the human costs behind our cheap products, and those costs include sexual assault, torture, maiming and death. There are descriptions of the extensive torture Yi endured in the camp, as well as a chapter that deals with forced organ donation.
Prior knowledge about China is not needed to understand Made in China. The book is an excellent entry-level explanation of Chinese religious and political history, and how human rights abuses intersect with billion-dollar businesses. Pang connects the dots between globalization, Western consumption and sustainability to create a clear, cohesive picture of the problem, as well as of potential solutions.