if you can’t stand to read about human rights violations today, scroll away now

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.

Book Cover

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:

  1. Do I already own something that serves the same purpose?
  2. Is this item so much better that I would be willing to donate three things in its place?
  3. 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?
  4. If the product I’m considering is an updated version of one that I already own, is my current one working just fine?
  5. 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

35 thoughts on “if you can’t stand to read about human rights violations today, scroll away now”

  1. Hmm, yes, the $5 t-shirt.
    Surely, no one needs to read this or any other book to know that whoever made that t-shirt is being exploited.
    And therein lies the problem. People buy them anyway, just as they buy $3 pizzas and $1 cartons of milk. They don’t even care about the local producers of the milk or the pizza, much less about a faceless worker in faraway China or the Philippines, or anywhere else.
    As I sit here typing this, everything I am wearing is made here in Australia under ethical, sustainable conditions. Much good that does, and I know it…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This book covers a bit of how/why we as buyers tend to turn away from acknowledging the human cost of our cheap goods, which was part of what made it an interesting and worthwhile read for me even already knowing that cheap goods means exploitation. And there were a few big and supposedly ‘sustainable’ brands called out in these pages specifically for real or suspected dealings with forced labor, some of which did surprise me. The $5 t-shirts are no the only culprits, sadly.
      And yes, as a single consumer, it’s hard to feel we’re making much of a difference even if we can be sure our buying habits aren’t contributing to the problem, because the it’s all just so large in scope. I really worry about how this will all play out, not to mention those already harmed by the practice, but I have to hope that if each one of us does our part individually it’ll add up. Nevertheless it is certainly a difficult topic to address from any angle.

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      1. Yes! It seems like it would be a huge undertaking to get enough attention on it, but I suspect the internet could help with that and I do hope we’ll see some sort of concentrated effort underway sooner rather than later. We’re definitely in need of a change.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, that’s great to hear. I could envision a lot of readers jumping ship early on due to the content without being properly warned, but despite the grimness it is definitely a topic that deserves more attention.

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  2. I had a similar reading experience with Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demnick, whose work is investigative journalism in North Korea. It’s tough, but knowing more made me feel better prepared to think about how I think about North Korea, which affects how I vote, my own prejudice, etc.

    Just to clarify, is this book about people forced to work (I think you’re saying it is, but I’m double checking), or people who are paid very poorly by American standards to work? I ask because I’ve read about factories in Asia and South American in which the person makes a paltry wage by our standards, something like $5 a week, but in their country, it’s a good wage, better than most places, and prevents people from entering prostitution or selling drugs.

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    1. Oof, yeah, I have a couple of North Korean books on my TBR that I should read but have been hesitant about for how hard they may be to sit through. Honestly if I had known how intense Made in China was I probably wouldn’t have rushed into it, though in the end I am glad to have read it and should let that serve as a reminder with other books on difficult topics. It really does help just to be more aware of what’s happening around the world and how our choices can affect a change.

      Yes, this book is primarily focused on forced labor, in inhumane conditions and for no wage. There are mentions of workers in some of the camps being offered a few cents per day for their labor, but even so they are not given a choice about the work they do or the conditions they work under, and it is not a good wage in this country. At one point Sun Yi is at a camp that supposedly pays for labor and mentions he’s earned almost $2 after a couple months of work, but he never sees the money. There are also mentions of some reputable rehabilitation places for people with real drug or crime problems, but what Pang focuses on are the fake rehabilitation camps where drug addicts are not given medical care and people with no drug issues are thrown equally into the mix, against their will and for no personal gain. Basically this book focuses on the situations that those $5 wage jobs are better than.

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      1. Okay, I see! I’m glad the author differentiates because I know the conversation around low wages by American standards is a complicated one. Thanks for putting this book on my radar, Emily. Since I read your review, I’ve seen a few mentions of the Uyghurs when I hadn’t even heard of them before.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Pang does a great job of making the working conditions and their ramifications clear; I think low-but-living wages are another topic entirely from what this book focuses on, though it does sound like another topic worth reading up on.
        I’m so glad you’ve found it helpful to have this book on your radar- the situation with the Uyghurs was pretty new to me too, and it really is shocking and disheartening to discover that an actual genocide is happening right now and yet hasn’t been a hot enough topic to seep into general awareness.

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  3. This sounds like such an important book. I have a lot of love for China but there is a lot of terrible history too and the government’s treatment of minorities in particular has been terrible for a long time. What’s happening with the Uighur people now has been classified as a genocide.

    For the past few years I’ve tried to source clothing as ethically as possible. I had a realization that I could not dress my children in clothing made by other children. But you’re right that it’s often hard to truly know where something comes from. The garment might be made ethically but what about the fabric? How was it grown or made or dyed? It’s yet another thing we as consumers need to really lean into and think hard about where we put our money so companies know weird not okay with this.

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    1. Ah, I hadn’t seen elsewhere that it had indeed been classified as genocide, but based on what Pang had to share about the labor camps in this book I’m not at all surprised. So, so devastating. And yes, like you say there’s plenty else to love about China, but the country certainly has a few dark chapters in its past that haven’t entirely been closed yet. It may seem more convenient to write the country off entirely for a situation such as this, but there truly seem to be so many people there who don’t condone it or aren’t even aware or just can’t get away, and those people still deserve support.

      Having to dress children certainly puts the source of your clothing in a new perspective- one I hadn’t considered before. It sounds like you’re doing a great job to make the safest purchases possible, and what’s so frustrating about it from a buyer’s perspective is that even the most careful of choices is hard to be certain of. Exploitation can happen at any point in the process of production, unfortunately. The greatest flaw of a capitalist society is that the producers and vendors who should be providing us ethical options are most often, at the end of the day, focused primarily on their profit margins. I really hope brands will see- especially with the internet making it easier to get their attention- that consumers care about the human cost. Being able to assure consumers of ethical production would be a great marketing tactic, if they would take the time and effort to prove the claim! I’m very much hoping that’s a trend we’ll see soon.

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      1. It’s been classified as such by the Canadian government but I don’t know how much that means on the global scale. I would say a lot of people in China are not aware of what’s truly going on there. It’s probably easier to access that sort of information in the West then it is right where it’s happening. It’s a matter of abuse by those in power and (often enforced) ignorance of the general population.

        I seem to be seeing more companies who are emphasizing ethics in their marketing in recent years. I’m skeptical of some of the big companies but there are also a lot of small businesses who are working to create products that don’t take advantage of cheap labour. It does require people to relearn though what the true value of an item is. We’re so used to cheap items.

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      2. Ah, okay. And yes, Pang does make it sound like many in China are unaware or underaware at least- she goes into some detail about how strictly the internet is surveilled in China, and mentions that the factories are sort of hidden to blend in and look like reputable rehabilitation places. The main character we follow through this book, Sun Yi, seems completely taken by surprise as to what he’s gotten into when he’s first detained in a labor camp, which it seemed must be the case for many. Those who speak out about the situation apparently do so at great risk, as the Chinese government seems inclined to silence such claims.

        There is definitely a trend toward sustainability and ethics in marketing, but Pang goes into some detail about how a company can legally say that they don’t use forced labor even without digging deeply enough into their production chain to detect whether that’s actually the case. There are all sorts of loop holes around outsourcing and auditing that can make it tricky for brands to be fully aware of what’s going on with their own supplies, so I think you’re right to stay skeptical of big companies especially. The trade law is also such (in the US at least) that when a foreign product can be proven to be made with forced labor a ban is issued only for that specific product, which doesn’t stop the factory from producing something else or from a different factory picking up the banned item and proof needing to be obtained all over again. The whole system seems designed to hide the exploitation, which is so hard to come to terms with. But I do think these marketing trends are a step in the right direction- companies know what we want to hear to buy their products. Now they just need to be able to put the proof behind the words.

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      3. Media is very restricted in China. One thing that struck me in the book I recently read about Wuhan was when the author talked about how in January 2020 there was a big event occurring in Wuhan and so news media wasn’t allowed to share any bad news leading up to that. I can’t imagine such a restriction being placed on the news in the West!

        I didn’t realize that about the trade law and forced labour. It’s so demoralizing to hear things like that and how much exploitation is hidden. But a good incentive to make sure I’m really looking closely at the companies I buy from!

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      4. I can’t imagine that either! Honestly I can hardly even imagine how it’s possible even in China with their strict firewall- the chapter on internet and digital surveillance in Pang’s account was one that felt like it really could’ve been its own book and not suffered for that level of expansion; I’m sure I got only the tip of the iceberg on media restriction through Made in China, and it was plenty shocking even in a small dose! Pang also talks a bit about China hosting the Olympics, which sounded like a similar situation to what you’re describing with Wuhan in 2020- only national propaganda was allowed to go through in that time, no diversions from the main event! It really is hard to fathom from a Western perspective, but helpful to get that glimpse.

        I felt exactly the same! It was upsetting to discover those legal loopholes but it certainly had an effect on me- I will no longer be able to buy *anything* without checking into it as best I can!

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      5. Media in China could definitely be its own book! It’s hard to imagine coming from what we’re used to but I think if you live your own life in that environment you’re not even aware of what else is out there.

        This is all also encouraging me as yet another reason to buy things secondhand whenever possible!

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      6. Yes, Pang really encourages secondhand shopping and getting as much use out of what you do purchase as possible! There are so few places around me for community thrifting, which I’m sad about, but I do live near a lot of my family who are all of the mentality not to throw anything out that could possibly still be used, so I do get a fair amount of recycling in that way even if not much choice in my secondhand items! I’m much more grateful about that now than I was in my younger life, tbh.

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      7. As a kid, secondhand items were more about saving money and I found that embarrassing. I’m much more grateful now.

        Just yesterday I was doing some small sewing repairs on some clothes of ours and Pearl was watching. I was explaining that I don’t know how but some people can make clothes at home and so she asked me, “Who made my clothes?” I was like, “Well, let me tell you!” And proceeded to launch into a bit of a lecture about clothing and ethical sources! I’m sure it was more of an answer than she wanted!

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      8. I agree! The stigma with kids is awful around using hand-me-down anything rather than having the shiny new stuff that’s popular at the time. I really love that thrifting seems to be more of a trend for teens now though! The younger generations really seem to be more conscientious about their impact, which is awesome.

        I’m sure it’s really hard to talk about some things like that with children, and even content aside it’s probably difficult to figure out when to bring it up, but then they really do seem to take in a lot of what you have to say even if it seems like they’re bored and attention is straying. I had to take care of my youngest sibling a lot as a teen and was so surprised at first that even when he was distracted he could parrot back whatever I’d been talking about or reading! They really are sponges. Every conversation helps, I think.

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      9. I love seeing the increased trendiness of thrifting! We talk quite a bit with our kids about the environment and not wasting things so I think secondhand clothing makes sense to Pearl from that perspective. I told her we want to support companies that are fair to their workers but since she doesn’t know anything about child labour or unions or health violations I’m not sure that means much to her! Though, as you say, you can’t always tell what kids are absorbing!

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  4. Absolutely fantastic review! I loved hearing your take on this one. I felt similarly, I think, in that I found some parts of it really dense and the overall effect just so bleak. BUT I really appreciated the actionable tips and thought points she provided around what we can actually do to help, I found those very valuable.

    It does feel like a big, especially thorny and frustrating problem but I’m glad to know more about it.

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    1. Thanks so much! I think we are fully in agreement about this one, if I remember correctly from your review. I too felt that being given some direct questions and prompts for what we can do from outside of China were very welcome and helpful (I had to photograph those pages before returning the book to the library because I couldn’t bear to let them go), especially coming at the end of the book when it was starting to seem like this was a problem with just no way out whatsoever. An incredibly frustrating situation indeed, but awareness does feel like a good first step. I’m so glad you felt the same.

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  5. Amazing review, I really feel, I ought to read this book! I’ve always been fascinated by China, which in many ways is a success story (which is important to remember as well – in some Western countries people tend to focus only on all the negative), but of course I am aware, there are lots of things going on, which are highly problematic. The problem for consumers is, there is very little transparency. Even well-known Western companies are likely to have sub-components produced in China and you would assume they are produced in a proper way, but who knows… That of course doesn’t mean you should give up as a consumer and start buying the cheap T-shirts. 😉 I think the big change will come from the institutional investment world. A huge trend is spreading, where investors have still increasing demands to environmental and ethical behaviour of the companies they invest in, which also has resulted in much more detailed reporting requirements from companies. Admittedly, it is still more tricky with companies in countries like China, but even there companies will come under increasing pressure. So hopefully things will improve over time.

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    1. Thank you! I definitely recommend this book highly, there’s so much important information covered here even if it is a difficult read. And you’re right- China does have its positives too and those should not be written off. The fact that we can’t just condemn the country as a whole is part of what makes this situation so difficult I think, but it is necessary to make distinctions. Pang does a great job of covering a bit of Chinese political history in a way that helps the reader understand how this labor situation is largely a byproduct of an economic disaster in the past that led to a need for stability at all costs; it doesn’t condone what has happened to millions of people in the name of economic stability, but it does help the reader understand how bad decisions can be made when stuck between a rock and a hard place, as they say, which I found helpful to understanding. And you’re exactly right about how difficult it is to know which things or parts of things have been produced this way (Pang goes into depth on how easily the involvement of these factories can be hidden), though of course it’s still important to shop to the best of our knowledge rather than give in entirely and buy what we know is wrong. I’m very pleased to hear about the investment trend you’ve mentioned- I must admit I’m not particularly up to date on economics and investments at the high levels so that’s new to me, and hopeful to hear. I do think we’re also starting to see a trend toward sustainability with brands, which is also important; I hope ethical production and brand transparency will go hand in hand as more people begin to consider and value the costs- beyond monetary- of their goods.

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      1. I think the trends about social and environmental factors in the investment world are more pronounced in Europe compared to US. The requirements to the environmental behaviour have even been included in the regulation. The Biden administration has communicated, it means to do the same.

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      2. That is so hopeful to hear, thanks for filling me in a bit further. Pang’s book was a great start but this is definitely a topic I should pursue further, and stay up to date with. I’m certainly more attuned to it now but I’ve still got a bit of catching up to do!

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  6. This sounds so powerful – it’s a book I’m definitely going to read, despite the fact that it’s pretty heavy going. I think the importance of the subject can’t be underestimated, and it’s certainly an area I’ve been feeling recently that I need to know more about (and then act on in as informed a way as possible). I love how the author has put the human aspect front and centre with one individual story in among all the statistics, and you’ve done a great job of drawing out the most important themes while giving an overall sense of the style and its effect on you. Thank you for drawing it to my attention!

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    1. It’s definitely a powerful book, and one I think you’d appreciate. As I was reading I kept thinking of your review of Zarate’s Wars of the Interior, where the author introduces an uncomfortable problem and then lets the reader sit with it, to engage with the issue in whatever way they will; this is obviously a different subject and Pang does provide a few suggestions about what can be done, but those suggestions are by no means a definitive solution and I suspect the two books might be a similar sort of reading experience. A bit less narrative focus in this one perhaps, though Sun Yi’s story really does bring this issue to life.
      I’m so glad you found my review helpful and may be interested in picking up the book yourself- I’d love to see your take on it!

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