In 2012, a woman from Oregon, USA bought decorations for Halloween, namely styrofoam tombstones. Hidden between the decorative tombstones was a letter from a man, asking for help.
In broken English mixed with Chinese, the letter read, “If you occasionally (sic) buy this product, please kindly resend this letter to the World Human Right Organization. Thousands people here who are under the persicution (sic) of the Chinese Communist Party Government will thank and remember you forever.”
The letter went into detail about the conditions at China’s Masanjia Labor Camp, including the gruelling hours, verbal and physical abuses as well as torture that inmates making the products had to endure.
At first, the woman, Julie Keith, thought that the letter might be a hoax. However, the tone of the letter prompted her to research further. At the time, Masanjia Labor Camp was unknown in the West, but an online search on it revealed that it was an infamous place, known for forced labour, torture, and ideological reprogramming. Julie took her story to the local newspaper, which in turn caused the story to go mainstream and gain worldwide attention.
In April 2013, China’s Lens Magazine included a 14-page exposé on abuses at Masanjia Labor Camp. The investigative story was based on interviews with approximately a dozen former inmates, who recalled being subjected to forced labour and a variety of torture methods in the camp.
The Chinese journalists also spoke to former officials at the labour camp who said Masanjia housed more than 5,000 inmates as free labourers at its height and created annual revenues of nearly 100 million yuan ($16 million), including revenue generated from exports. This exposé in Lens Magazine caused a huge outrage domestically in China and reinvigorated calls to reform the forced labour system.
In 2013, under intense international and domestic scrutiny, China announced that it was abolishing its “re-education through labour” system. The Laojiao system, called the Re-education through labour system in English, was introduced in 1957 by Mao Zedong himself. Active from 1957 to 2013, the system was used to detain persons who were accused of minor crimes such as petty theft, prostitution, and trafficking illegal drugs, as well as political dissidents, petitioners, and Falun Gong followers.
However, just after abolishing the Laojiao system in 2013, China built re-education camps in Xinjiang, targeting a much wider context than petty crime or being politically dissident. By 2017, these camps became the massive Xinjiang internment camps holding 1–3 million people, utilizing forced labour, and now recognized as re-education camps by many nations, intergovernmental organizations such as the United Nations and European Union, and human rights groups.
The Falun Gong connection
In 2018, the mysterious man behind the letter, imprisoned in Masanjia Labor Camp, crying out for help was finally revealed for a Canadian documentary. Sun Yi, the author of the letter, was an engineer who was released from the labour camp in 2010 after his 2½-year sentence, even before the news of his hidden S.O.S. letter made international headlines.
Sun Yi revealed that he had been in and out of labour camps no fewer than 10 times. Sun Yi explained that this continuous persecution on part of the Chinese state was because of his Falun Gong beliefs. Falun Gong is a neo-spiritual movement with millions of estimated followers in China. In 1999, the Chinese Communist Party launched a severe crackdown in the form of a persecution campaign against followers of the Falun Gong movement which continues to this day.
In 2008, Beijing police sold Sun Yi to Masanjia Labor Camp for the equivalent of USD $800. He worked 15-hour days making forced-labour products, including Halloween decorations. Realizing that the products were destined for export markets in the West, he secretly wrote dozens of notes calling for help in the darkness of his cell. Only one of his notes, the one in Oregon, USA, was ever discovered.
When Sun Yi refused to renounce his Falun Gong beliefs and swear fealty to the Communist Party — he claims that he was strung up by his wrists for 20 hours a day for eight consecutive months. Sometimes the guards shocked him with electric truncheons and extinguished cigarettes on his skin. When he went on a hunger strike, he says they pried his mouth open with a metal instrument and violently force-fed him.
The story of Sun Yi is just one of many horror stories which went on at Masanjia Labor Camp. There have been persistent reports of torture and other human rights abuses being committed at the camp.
“I went through all sorts of torture. I would shout, ‘Falungong is good!’, all the time, and then they would beat me on the mouth with a big plank of wood or tie me up,” said one Falun Gong detainee at Masanjia, showing indentations on her wrists she said came from a rope.
“I still can’t forget the pleas and howling,” said Liu Hua, 51, a petitioner who was imprisoned at Masanjia on three separate occasions. “That place is a living hell.”
According to former inmates, roughly half of Masanjia’s population is made up of Falun Gong practitioners or members of underground churches, with the rest a smattering of prostitutes, drug addicts, and political prisoners.
In October 2017, just a mere eight days shy of his 51st birthday, Sun Yi died from a lung infection and acute kidney failure. Since his death was so sudden and he didn’t have kidney problems before, some of his friends speculated that the Chinese communist government was involved. But since his body was cremated without an autopsy, that is impossible to prove.
His ashes were brought to his hometown of Xi’an, where they rest alongside his mother’s and father’s remains.
“I so badly wanted a happy ending for him,” Keith said in 2018. “He was the most resilient, strong person I have ever met. For someone to go through what he did and come out and be able to talk about it and share his experiences with the world — it’s just incredible.”
Four years after Sun Yi’s death, the Chinese Communist Party still maintains its large scale in internment camps in Xinjiang, which holds millions of Uyghurs and other minorities, according to several international human rights groups. Therefore, it is important to remember and honor Sun Yi’s memory, who was a devout believer in his faith, so much so that he endured persecution for years by the Chinese Communist state, along with thousands of others Falun Gong, along with other minorities which are being systemically oppressed in China.