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The Alarming Human Toll of Cheap Stuff ‘Made in China’

A Prisoner, an SOS Letter, and the Hidden Cost of America’s Cheap Goods
By Amelia Pang

Five chapters into “Made in China,” Amelia Pang’s investigation of forced labor practices in China, her main subject — a Falun Gong practitioner named Sun Yi — is tasked with making decorative paper mushrooms for export, it is rumored, to Europe. It is early during his stay in a forced labor camp called Masanjia, and the assignment is supposed to be a cushy one. How difficult can it be to make paper mushrooms? Sun, however, soon scrapes his fingers rubbing the paper together to get the desired fake-mushroom feel. His cuts grow infected, but he keeps working, trying to fill an impossible quota of 160 mushrooms per day. Other inmates steal mushrooms from one another in desperation, growing thin on a diet of poisonous-smelling vegetable soup. “Sun regularly slept just two to four hours,” Pang writes. “Only to dream of the repetitive creasing motions of folding paper mushrooms.”

In the aftermath of 2020 — a year that saw both the expansion of a vast detention and forced labor system in the western Chinese province of Xinjiang and a homebound global population increasingly reliant on goods delivered anonymously to their doorstep — Pang’s book feels timely and urgent. Her argument starts here, in the room with the mushrooms, and goes like this: that the way we consume is unsustainable; that something as seemingly trivial as paper mushrooms and Halloween decorations are entangled in a system that hides atrocity by design and makes complicity — with authoritarian governments, with dangerous working conditions and even with religious persecution — part of modern life. Pang, a freelance journalist who grew up in a Mandarin-speaking household, is most effective when she is drawing out these juxtapositions, putting production and torture matter-of-factly side by side.

“Made in China” gets off to a rocky start; Pang does not hit her stride until a few chapters in. She opens the book with a mystery, involving the discovery, by a woman living in the suburbs of Portland, Ore., of a note that Sun Yi hid in a package of Halloween decorations headed to the United States. The woman opens the package, the note falls out and, it seems, the hunt is on. “If you occasionally buy this product, please kindly resend this letter to the World Human Right Organization,” the note read, in English.

Identifying Sun Yi, however, turns out not to be much of a puzzle. He had been released from Masanjia in 2010, two years before his letter was discovered, well before Pang began researching his case. In fact, he was the subject of a 2018 documentary, “Letter From Masanjia.” This opening conceit dissolves quickly and the early pages of Pang’s book race through Sun’s childhood and, at the same time, survey decades of Chinese history in passages that are sometimes sweeping and reductive. “The Cultural Revolution killed millions and mangled China’s economy,” she writes. “This is why modern mainland Chinese ideals tend to place higher value on social stability than human rights.”

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