Oregon mother Julie Keith opened a package of Halloween decorations from Kmart last October expecting a cheap bundle of holiday spookiness, but the letter she found tucked among the Chinese-made items was far more disturbing than the $29 fake bloody tombstone kit she had just purchased.
“Sir: If you occasionally buy this product, please kindly resend this letter to the World Human Right Organization,” the note read. “Thousands people here who are under the persicution of the Chinese Communist Party Government will thank and remember you forever [all sic].”
Written on lined paper in broken English, the letter was a heartbreaking plea for help, sent surreptitiously from the bowels of a forced labor camp in northeastern China. More than a year after Keith discovered the note, a man claiming to be its author has begun speaking out against the brutal Chinese “re-education through labor" system that imprisoned him, reports The New York Times.
Identified only by his surname, Zhang, the 47-year-old former inmate of the Masanjia camp told the Times that he wrote 20 different SOS letter during the two years he was imprisoned. He then hid the letters in packages with English-language writing on them, in the hopes that they would be sold in American stores.
“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,” Zhang, who follows a spiritual discipline that is banned in China, told the Times.
In a separate interview with CNN, Zhang detailed the extreme lengths he went to in order to protect his secret. When the guards weren't watching, Zhang said he tore off pages of exercise books to use as paper and convinced a friend to sneak him 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," Zhang told CNN. "The lights were always on in the camp and there was a man on duty in every room to keep an eye on us."
Keith, meanwhile, says she is still waiting for U.S. authorities to properly address the situation. After she took her story public last year, Oregon station KATU reached out to Kmart parent company Sears Holdings and received this written statement:
Although we found no evidence that production was subcontracted to a labor camp during a recent audit of the factory that produced the Halloween decoration, our investigation continues.
Keith told CNN she's not buying that explanation. Sears "must know" that their products are being made in camps like Masanjia, but she thinks the company "would rather this be swept under the rug."
"It is quite ironic that it was a bloody graveyard kit that I purchased -- knowing that the people who made these kits were desperate and bloody themselves," Keith told CNN. "Now I check the labels and try not to buy things I don't necessarily need, especially if it is made in China."