Review: Made in China: A Prisoner, An SOS letter, and the Hidden Cost of America’s Cheap Goods by Amelia Pang
It pains me a little to warn readers off before getting properly into this review when I think it addresses one of the most important ongoing issues in the world today, and there are millions of people facing this issue in real time without the luxury of turning away out of discomfort, but… to help others we must first take care of ourselves, and reading morally difficult content may be counterproductive for some. In that vein, CWs include: confinement, forced institutionalization, genocide, gore, Islamophobia, racism, rape, slavery, suicidal thoughts, torture, and human trafficking. I’m going to talk about a few specifics in this review so again, turn away now if you’re not equipped for that today. But if you can, especially if you are a first-world consumer (don’t be fooled by the mention of America in the title; though written with an American audience in mind, this is a larger problem), I would highly urge picking up this book and/or educating yourself on the topic of ongoing forced labor.
Made in China is a new nonfiction book that opens with a US woman opening a package of party decorations and finding an SOS note sealed inside, written by the ailing Chinese man forced to produce the product. From here the book covers many related topics, including why it is so hard for the average American to make significant waves about this problem, how and why China came to be in the position to perpetuate forced labor of its own citizens, and the fate of the man who wrote this particular note. The book alternates between Chinese history, the horrifying extent of the current problem, and the moving plight of Sun Yi, one man caught in the maw of a dangerous system.
“Inspired by Soviet gulags, China’s first labor camps opened in the 1930s. China’s laogai system remains the largest forced-labor system in operation today. It includes a vast network of prisons, camps, and various extralegal detention centers. […] In these camps, millions of emaciated people must work fifteen to twenty hours a day, seven days a week. Many also undergo political indoctrination and torture.”
Made in China is a bleak book all around; I was initially dismayed at being given a detailed description of one torture experienced by Sun Yi straight away in the first chapter, but ultimately I think including something graphic so early on is a smart move on Pang’s part because it sets the tone for the darkness of the content to follow. Another smart move: sharing so much of Sun’s story with the reader. Made in China often threatens to bog us down in statistics, history, and politics, but Sun’s story spread across the book ensures that the reader never loses the human connection: the individual faces behind the numbers and facts. And Sun does see some victories- he’s got family and friends, and at one point a lawyer, to help him survive, people who support his decision even when he could walk free and clear of it all and chooses instead to expose as much of the truth as possible to help the others stuck inside. It can be hard to read about what Sun endures, but he is the beating heart of this book.
“He had been there so long he sometimes forgot he was alive.”
In addition to Sun as a subject, we’re also given some background on Chinese government, as a means of understanding why economic stability is tantamount to the current regime and how forced-labor and reeducation-through-labor camps double as a means of stifling potential rebellions. The chapters on Chinese political history, particularly relating to the persecution of Falun Gong (a type of religious/meditative/lifestyle practice) members, are among the densest of the book; one of the only downfalls to this reading experience for me was the feeling that each of these chapters could have been expanded into its own book without ever dipping into superfluity. There’s a lot of relevant information to cover, and Pang seems to do as well as anyone possibly could, condensing it into a readable length and sensible organization. Made in China can be a rough start for those like me who are woefully uneducated on Chinese life and history, but I do think this is a great overview that’s worth the patience required to sort through the denser pieces. The history is not enough to make one sympathetic to the regime’s choice of resorting to forced labor, but it does help the reader understand how China came to this point, and perhaps sympathize with those who know about and choose not to rebel against this system.
“Wolves would rather forage by themselves in the lonely wilderness, risking starvation and death than be well-fed in a cage. But humans are not the same.”
With that knowledge and Sun’s story to carry us through, Pang next delves into the breadth of the modern problem. Forced labor itself and all that entails sounds grim enough, but the surveillance methods for pinpointing ‘suspicious’ persons before any crime is committed, coupled with the fact that Chinese criminal courts convict in 99.9% of cases (for those allowed a trial at all in the first place), offers new frightening implications. Lest we brush that off, Pang presents an all but inarguable case suggesting that detainees are used not only for labor but also for organ harvesting, as the primary source for the entire nation’s billion-dollar transplant industry. And if that somehow doesn’t sound bad enough, wait until you get to the part where the people who are chosen as detainees and potential organ ‘donors’ are often those who practice any religion or philosophy beyond government-sanctioned ideologies. There is one entire corner of China populated primarily by Uyghurs, an ethnic minority Turkic people who have, historically, been practicing Muslims, and this is the area in which the forced labor situation reaches peak awfulness of genocide proportions:
“Once inside reeducation camps, the Turkic detainees attend daily indoctrination classes on official state ideology. They must prove they can reject Islam, forget their native tongue, and learn fluent Mandarin. There are reports of camps sterilizing Turkic women, while Turkic children are stolen from their parents and given to ‘orphanages’ that raise them as Chinese. In 2020, the Jamestown Foundation released a report analyzing Chinese government documents such as ‘family planning’ records. It found that between 2015 and 2018, forced sterilizations and abortions decreased the birth rate in two of the largest Uyghur prefectures by 84 percent. But this drop was not steep enough for China. The local government of one Uyghur region set a family planning goal of lowering the birth rate to nearly zero in 2020. Through forced sterilization and policies that strongly encourage interracial Han Chinese and Turkic marriages, the Chinese Communist Party is proceeding to wipe out an entire ethnicity.”
Pang has clearly done her research. Every statement of fact is sourced, with 40+ pages of notes in the back of the book linking each assertion to its roots, chapter by chapter. When she can’t claim something as a fact, she’s honest about the speculation, showing her path from fact to implication in a way that is nonetheless convincing for the lack of concrete proof. Considering that every survivor of these camps and every foreign investigator who questions or gets too close speaks out only at great personal risk, it is easy to see why some particulars may go unknown until an end to this problem has been reached. Even Pang closes her author’s note at the end of the book with a harrowing “thank you to my family in China, who knew nothing about this book; I’m so sorry if this will make your lives difficult.”
But Perhaps the scariest reveal of all for me here was just how hard it can be to do anything at all to help ease this situation from America, or even to refrain from supporting the practice monetarily. Where we put our money as consumers matters, but as a consumer it can be all but impossible to know for sure which products or brands to avoid due to forced labor sourcing. Even the company selling the the product may not know that their supplier is outsourcing for labor, because this is a layered issue where the truth can be hidden at multiple points. There are whole Chinese companies dedicated to fabricating factory records to outsmart audits, and the audits themselves may not be able to dig deep enough to discover illegal labor use in the time allotted.
“And so the million-dollar question is: Are any brands truly sustainable at the moment? Even companies that market themselves around ‘transparency’ and ‘sustainability’ often reveal little information about whether their audits can actually detect unauthorized subcontracting. I have yet to come across any companies that divulge how often they made sudden production changes, or how fast a turnaround they expect from factories. And without transparency about these sourcing practices, for all we know, even the most well-intentioned companies could be inadvertently sourcing from laogai factories.”
In my opinion, it’s going to be up to individual brands to risk higher profits by going out of their way to make sure that forced labor makes up no part of their production process. But that’s… the easiest possible way this all could end, in my view, and in a capitalist world it’s hard to imagine brands being that selfless by choice. Unfortunately it’s not hard to imagine several ways in which this could get worse before it gets better. There’s even some information in here about how our brains work while shopping in a way that motivates us to center the monetary cost over the human cost. And if that can be overcome, one also must confront the potential humanitarian disaster that could result from boycotting legal Chinese-produced goods along with the illegal forced labor stuff; while forced labor goods may make up a shockingly huge portion of the market, the majority of Chinese-based goods are probably not made this way, and over a billion innocent people depend on the stability of China’s economy just as much as its corrupt regime does. It’s bleak.
Pang doesn’t want to leave the reader entirely without hope though, and offers some questions in the final chapter of her book that we as consumers can ask of the companies we buy from in order to double check their production practices and help hold them accountable, but of course no one is obligated to answer these questions and the law around forced labor goods is slippery and full of loopholes. What we can all do, though, is be smart about our purchasing practices, and get into the habit of centering the human cost of the product over the monetary cost; so in case you don’t pick up this book for whatever reason, I’ll leave these purchasing prompts from Pang with you now:
- Do I already own something that serves the same purpose?
- Is this item so much better that I would be willing to donate three things in its place?
- If it were more expensive, would I still try to figure out a way to afford it? Or am I feeling an urge to buy this only because it’s extremely cheap?
- If the product I’m considering is an updated version of one that I already own, is my current one working just fine?
- Am I sure I will wear or use this product a lot? Or will this likely end up sitting in storage after one use?
My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. And a good time to remind you that I rate based on personal reading experience, not on the importance of the content or objective merit of the book (which personally I don’t believe any person can do fairly). The experience was somewhat lessened for me by the extra effort it took to parse the densest chapters and keep up with shifting timelines, but I did by the end feel that I understood everything that had been covered and felt this an entirely worthwhile (and life-changing, tbh) read. I can’t emphasize enough how difficult of a read this is, but I also can’t recommend the read enough to anyone and everyone willing to brave the content. I cannot even fathom how this isn’t a hotter topic worldwide- let’s make it one.
(If you need any more incentive, May is AAPI reading month. I believe this book qualifies.)
The Literary Elephant