It's not our fault.
We're not imprisoning people who don't agree with us and forcing them to make plastic junk we don't need.
We're not the ones trying to suppress the civil rights of people who don't like the way we govern, or how we cheat them out of fair wages. We're not the ones denying them freedom of religion.
All we want is the ability to pay the cheapest possible price for disposable commodities like holiday decorations. What's wrong with that?
Perhaps you missed the story this past winter about the woman in Oregon who found a hand-scribbled note tucked into a box of Halloween decorations. She had bought the ornaments at her local Kmart store a year earlier, but had saved them for this past Halloween, when she opened the box in her home and the note tumbled out as her kids examined its contents. She read the note, and, becoming alarmed by what it said, contacted federal authorities, who got the international ball rolling to determine its authenticity.
"If you occasionally buy this product," the note read in choppy English, "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."
It went on to describe the grueling workdays and other forms of punishment being forced upon Chinese prisoners who made the Halloween decorations the woman had bought.
Frankly, I hadn't heard about this story until today, when the New York Times reported that the note's writer has been satisfactorily identified in China. He had been held as a prisoner in the notorious Masanjia labor camp as punishment for being a member of Falun Gong, the outlawed religious group that, even by Western standards, is considered a cult. In China, Falun Gong is a cult of the worst sort, since it mandates the supernatural over science, a wordview that is anathema to conformist Communism.
The man, known only as Zhang for his protection, says he wrote 20 such letters during his imprisonment at Masanjia, but since the products into which he tucked his notes could have been shipped anywhere in the world, it's not known who else might have found those notes and simply failed to notify authorities. Indeed, when people open such packages, the wrappings, foils, and cardboard holding the contents inside are usually ignored. The excitement of getting these goofy, plastic trinkets usually only lasts as long as it takes to open the box they came in. Which is one reason why people don't like spending a lot of money on them to begin with.
Which is why the Chinese government needs people like Zhang: political prisoners, people who complain too much, members of underground Christian churches, and especially adherents of Falun Gong. These are people Communists find threatening. One woman was sentenced to 18 months in a labor camp for complaining that seven men who had abducted and raped her daughter didn't get appropriate sentences themselves. It has been estimated that over 1,000 work camps may exist across China, and while the government doesn't exactly deny their existence, they call them centers of "re-education through labor," and instead of prisoners, the occupants are referred to as "students." Estimates to the number of students - err, prisoners - at these labor camps run as high as 190,000.
In addition to forcing these prisoners - some of whom are children, and others actually are hardened criminals - to perform slave labor under harsh conditions, the government selects some for forced organ harvesting. As you might imagine, the Chinese government doesn't release reports and statistics on what they do in these camps, and they hate people talking about them. Just yesterday, it was learned that Du Bin, a Chinese photojournalist investigating labor camp abuses was abducted by officials and being detained by the police. His family didn't know where he was for two weeks. Du's abduction and detention is being decried by human rights activists as proof that Xi Jinping, China's new president who just this past weekend met with Barak Obama for a personal meeting in California, plans on tightening his tolerance of dissent.
Indeed, anecdotal reports from human rights and religious groups inside China estimate that the Christian house church movement there may be witnessing new increases of government-imposed persecution, with the number of confirmed cases of official sanctions against house church members rising by 14% in just the past year. This statistic includes an increase in detentions of house church members, a punishment that ranges from being under house arrest to being sent to labor camps without a court trial. Fears of further persecution are rising after testimonies of renewed government scrutiny and harassment of suspected house church Christians - including Catholics - continue leaking out of the country.
Although some political watchers hoped China's appalling record regarding human rights abuses would be one of the topics presidents Obama and Xi discussed this past weekend, it's unlikely any substantive improvements regarding the labor camps sponsored by America's largest trading partner will be taking place anytime soon. You see, the degree of complicity for which we American consumers are responsible when it comes to the cheap products - including coats with "Made in Italy" labels and Christmas wreaths, according to the Times - coming out of these labor camps only compounds the problem.
You and I are helping Communists make a profit off of slave labor. Twisted, huh?
So often, when presented with such problems whose solution appears impossible for individuals to accomplish on their own, we find it easier to shake our heads in momentary mournfulness at the fallen state of our world. And then we pick ourselves up, shake off the bad news, and go on with our day.
But what if we actually looked for something substantive each one of us could do to help address this crisis - and, yes, it is a crisis - in China's labor camps? After all, those are real, living, breathing, thinking human beings slaving away right now, making stuff none of us need in inhumane conditions so we can pay as little as possible for it.
What would happen if we just stopped buying that junk?
How do we know what junk we don't need? And how much of it is made with slave labor? Well, yes, those are hard questions to figure out, but why not start with the reason we buy this stuff in the first place. When we buy this stuff because we think we need it to enjoy life, or because we don't think we have the time to make homemade versions of it ourselves, how lackluster will our lives be if we try sticking with those good old "Made in America" labels? And if we think that stuff is too expensive, simply resist the urge for cheaper stuff.
Because if you're in a dollar store, or another store where the prices seem attractively low, you need to remember that actually, they're not.
The price somebody in China likely is paying so you don't have to spend much of your own money is probably considerable.
More than you or I would be willing to pay.