A man held in slave-like conditions in a Chinese prison camp wrote a desperate letter begging for help and buried it in a shopping bag destined for New York City. A woman who found the note started investigations into conditions in Chinese labor camps.
The message, written in English, shocked Australian expatriate Stephanie Wilson, who had just bought a pair of rain boots at Saks Fifth Avenue's tony Manhattan flagship store.
"HELP, HELP, HELP! We are ill-treated and work like slaves for 13 hours every day producing these bags in bulk in the prison factory. Thanks and sorry to bother you." It was signed Tohnain Emmanuel Njong and was accompanied by a small photo of a man in an orange jumpsuit, the website DNAinfo.com
Wilson, 28, brought the letter to the Laogai Research Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group founded to fight human-rights abuses in Chinese prisons. Its founder, Harry Wu, spent 19 years inside a Chinese prison factory and said that if Njong had been caught sending that letter, the consequences would have been dire.
"There would be solitary confinement until you confess, and maybe later they increase your sentence — or even death," Wu said.
The matter was eventually referred to the Department of Homeland Security to investigate whether a U.S. company uses forced labor to make its products. Officials would not confirm Wilson's claims that she was interviewed by the department. Saks has launched an investigation of the matter.
The website eventually tracked Njong, 34, down, and he said he had been falsely arrested for fraud and was barred from contact with the outside world for 10 months while awaiting his sentence. Eventually, the native of Cameroon was imprisoned in the eastern city of Qingdao, Shandong Province, where he was forced to work 17 hours a day in a factory making bags or clothes or electronics.
"We were being monitored all the time," Njong said. "I got under my bed cover and I wrote it so nobody could see that I was writing anything."
Njong was finally released on good behavior last year.
This isn't the first time reports of abuse in Chinese prisons have surfaced. An Oregon woman
named Julie Keith was about to donate some Halloween decorations she had bought at Kmart to Goodwill when she found a folded note in a graveyard kit box.
The note read: "If you occasionally buy this product, please kindly resend this letter to the World Human Right Organization. Thousands people here who are under the persecution of the Chinese Communist Party Government will thank and remember you forever."
"People who work here have to work 15 hours a day without Saturday, Sunday break and any holidays. Otherwise, they will suffer torturement, beat and rude remark," the note said.
The newspaper informed Immigration and Customs Enforcement about the letter, which launched an investigation.
"If I really don't need it, I won't buy it if it's made in China," Keith now says. "This has really made me more aware. I hope it would make a difference."
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