In September of 2012, Stephanie Wilson reached into a Saks Fifth Avenue paper bag in search of her shoe receipt. She came out with a letter written by a man claiming to be unfairly held in a Chinese prison factory since May of 2011. Prisoner Tohnain Emmanuel Njong, a Cameroonian, gave details about the maltreatment people received there and asked that the letter’s recipient forward it to the human rights department of the United Nations. The writer also requested that, “if possible, contact Samuel Eto’o (FIFA) and let them know my sad story,” explaining that he was the Chelsea F.C. player’s fan club manager. Njong also included a color copy of a small photo and a Yahoo! email address.
Wilson showed her discovery to a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. created to fight human rights abuses against prisoners in China. The Laogai Research Foundation, whose creator spent 19 years in a Chinese prison factory, began to investigate. An email was sent to the Yahoo! address, but it bounced back. Njong had taken a huge risk, said founder Harry Wu. If the letter had been discovered, solitary confinement until confession would be followed by a possible sentence increase, “or even death.” Wu’s organization was unable to locate Njong through its online and on-the-ground contacts, so it referred the missive to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
That is where the case has stood until recently, when a Digital Network Associates (DNAinfo) reporter located the man through social media accounts and the inactive Yahoo! address. Njong was released early in December of 2013 for good behavior and now lives and works in Dubai. He says he hid a total of five letters in bags during his time in prison. In bags bearing French words, he placed letters in French. The letters he wrote in English were placed in bags that had English words on them. Njong told the DNAinfo reporter that wrote the letters with some of the pen and paper he was given to keep records of his productivity and penned them under his bed cover. Because contact with the outside community was barred, Njong’s family had no idea what happened to him and assumed him to be dead. Now 34, Njong said he was teaching English in Shenzhen when he was charged with fraud and arrested, a crime he said he did not commit. His legal aid lawyer in China, assigned to the accused after Njong had already spent nearly a year in a detention center, confirmed Njong’s arrest and imprisonment.
Njong is only one of an unknown number of prisoners in China who reached out for help in this manner. One month after Stephanie Wilson found her note, a woman in Oregon found something quite similar in a box of Kmart Halloween decorations (“17 pc Graveyard Kit) that had been sitting in her attic ever since she purchased them one year earlier. Julie Keith was not sure what to do, so she took a picture of the letter and posted it on Facebook asking for advice. And while her story made international headlines instantly, the letter along with the author’s fate faded from the collective consciousness of the public just as quickly. As in Njong’s case, it was a reporter who eventually located the former inmate. The 47-year-old Beijing resident, who asked that the New York Times reporter call him Zhang, said that over a period of two years he had hid 20 such letters in products with English-language packaging. Zhang’s letter gave similar grisly details about human rights abuses and 15-hour workdays. Like Njong’s letter, Zhang also requested that the letter’s recipient forward it to a human rights organization.
At the end of last year, the Chinese government officially stated that it would abolish the re-education through labor camp system, a system that led these letters to be written. China researcher at Amnesty International Corinna-Barbara Francis said that the labor camp system was doomed by examples of gross injustice along with journalistic exposes on the torture prisoners in China suffered. Francis calls the camps’ closure “an amazing step.” While others acknowledge that it is a step in the right direction, they warn that little has changed except the types of camps where these abuses are allowed. Police still have the ability to detain people for up to four years without a trial or possibility of appeal in camps designated for drug and prostitution offenders. Psychiatric hospitals also have these same powers.
Stephanie Wilson and Julie Keith, in the meantime, advise that consumers be wary of products made in China. That Zhang is alive and free gives Keith some closure, but she hopes that what prisoners in China endure will stay in people’s minds, making them “more careful about the products they buy and where they originate from.”
By Donna Westlund