byFaith | 12.10.14
By Alan Dowd

As you wrap up your Christmas shopping, odds are you’ll find three little words on lots of labels: “Made in China.”

For those of us who believe in free trade and free markets, there is nothing wrong, in and of itself, with the tidal wave of Chinese goods represented by that ubiquitous phrase—that is, unless there’s something wrong about the system that produces those goods.

The upside of China’s light-speed transformation from a hermit kingdom into the world’s factory floor includes cheaper goods and increased prosperity on both sides of the Pacific: With U.S.-bound exports growing by some 1,600 percent since the early 1990s, China’s “capitalish” economy has expanded by almost 10 percent annually for a quarter-century, enabling Beijing to lift some 500 million out of poverty.

Not coincidentally, the U.S. is about $70 billion richer each year because of the U.S.-China trade relationship: With China open for business, Walmart operates 400 stores in 170 Chinese cities; McDonald’s has 2,000 restaurants in China; and the top-selling car in China is the Ford Focus. China’s $9-trillion GDP makes it one of the main pistons of the global economy. Total U.S.-China trade tops $560 billion annually.

But there’s a downside to all this—or more accurately, an ugly underside. China may engage in free-market economics, but China’s people are not free.

In a country where people of all faiths and no faith at all celebrate Christmas, we Americans are prone to forget that there are places where governments are literally at war with Christmas, or at least at war with what Christmas represents. One such place is China.

This past summer, Beijing smothered a burgeoning religious-openness movement in Wenzhou, a city in eastern China “known for its relaxed ties between church and state,” as The New York Times eports.

Too relaxed, it turns out. Xia Baolong, a regional Communist Party leader, saw the 180-foot spire atop a new Christian church and was “disturbed that a religious building, especially one seen as representing a foreign belief, dominated the skyline,” according to the Times. So, government authorities bulldozed the newly-built church and then ordered a dozen other churches in the region to remove their crosses or face demolition.

Importantly, Xia is a close ally of Xi Jinping, China’s newly-minted president. Although Western reporters are charmed by what Reuters calls a “folksy smile,” it pays to recall that Xi was a central part of the regime’s policies long before he became president—policies that, according to the U.S. government, include the harshest crackdown on dissent since the early 2000s.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) provides some details: “The Chinese government continues to perpetrate particularly severe violations of religious freedom…Inde­pendent Catholics and Protestants face arrests, fines and the shuttering of their places of worship.” Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Muslims, practi­tioners of Falun Gong, folk religionists and Protestant house-church attenders “face long jail terms, forced renun­ciations of faith and torture in detention…Protestants and Catholics who refuse to join the state-sanctioned religious organizations continue to face severe restrictions, including efforts to undermine and harass their leaders, arrest and detentions, and property destruction.”

Amnesty International estimates that “hundreds of thousands of people” are subjected to arbitrary arrest and detention in China, many of them for “peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and freedom of belief.”

Perhaps worst of all, some of those targeted for their religious beliefs and political views end up in labor camps that double as factories. The Laogai Research Foundation (LRF) identified 1,100 prison-labor camps in its 2005-06 report, concluding that there are “11 prisons that produce toys for domestic and international markets.” According to LRF founder Harry Wu, himself a survivor of the laogai camps, “It is very likely that some of the toys are entering the United States.”

In fact, a U.S. government commission focused on human rights in China reports that “prison labor has been used to manufacture, among other products, toys, electronics and clothing. The export to the United States of products manufactured through the use of forced labor in China’s prison system and other forms of detention reportedly continues despite U.S.-China agreements.”

More specifically, and more sickeningly, these camps have been known to churn out rosaries, Christmas wreaths, Christmas trees, Christmas lights and other holiday decorations—all for export to the United States and other Western nations. 

The desperation of the people locked away in these camps (and their connection to us) was brought to light in 2012, when an Oregon womanfound a note inside a box of Halloween decorations she purchased at Kmart. The note begged its recipient to “resend this letter to the World Human Right (sic) Organization …thousands here who are under persicution (sic) of the Chinese Communist Party Government will thank and remember you forever.” The letter claimed to be from “unit 8, department 2 of the Masanjia Labor Camp in Shenyang, China.”

The woman was skeptical, but she notified a human-rights NGO and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency. It turns out the letter was written by a man who had indeed been jailed at the Masanjia prison-labor camp. His crime: practicing the outlawed Falun Gong faith.

This is the ugly underside of free trade without conscience.

There is a brutal logic to Beijing’s brutal response to independent religious activity. After all, the common denominator of these faiths—Christianity, Islam, Falun Gong, Tibetan Buddhism—is that each holds there is something higher, something beyond, something bigger than the state. That notion represents a mortal threat to the legitimacy and durability of the People’s Republic of China, which is founded on the premise that people exist to serve the state—not to glorify God.

In late 2013, Beijing announced it would be closing its network of “reeducation through labor” prison camps. But this proved to be a case of word games. While the name may have changed, the system remains.

“The net effect of this policy shift was unclear,” the U.S. government commission concludes, “as reports emerged that authorities increased the use of other facilities, such as ‘legal education centers’ and compulsory drug-detox centers, to arbitrarily detain citizens.”

So what can we do?

We can access a vast arsenal of tools to become better informed about China’s factories. The Department of Labor maintains a listing of goods—categorized by country of origin—produced by child labor or forced labor. China is flagged for everything from artificial flowers to toys. Free2Work helps people track how their favorite brands “are working to address forced and child labor.” The group is even developing a mobile app to empower consumers to trace supply chains. But Beijing doesn’t make it easy. Beijing has evaded efforts to trace the source of some Chinese exports by hiding prison-labor products within a labyrinth of front organizations. In the case of a prison in Jieyang, for example, goods were sent from the camp to an import-export corporation in mainland China, then to one of four holding companies in Hong Kong, and then placed on the global market.

We can check the label. The good news is that a growing number of companies are striving to keep their shelves free of merchandise produced by forced labor. Free2Work grades dozens of clothing companies, and the Web abounds with lists of ethical retailers.   

We can challenge our elected representatives to make human rights a priority. “The average American needs to tell the media, their congressman and senators, and the president that we have to put human rights and democracy on the table with the Chinese government,” Wu says. “We should not only want to see their economy improve, but also their human rights and freedom.”

Toward that end, we can stop buying products bearing the “Made in China” label. A broad U.S. boycott of goods produced and/or assembled in China would certainly get Beijing’s attention, but that’s easier said than done. On average, each man, woman and child in America accounts for $1,393 in Chinese imports annually. I’ve tried my own personal boycott, and it’s a herculean—or perhaps more accurately, Sisyphean—effort to avoid those three little words. (The next time you’re at Target or Walmart, load your cart with what you need, and then remove anything that was made in China.) Moreover, boycotting Chinese-made goods may do collateral damage to unintended targets: First, “Made in China” does not necessarily mean “Made in Prison.” Indeed, millions of Chinese people are making better lives for themselves by working—at their own volition—in factories that produce U.S.-bound goods. Second, 55 cents of every dollar spent on a “Made in China” item pays for services produced in the United States.

Still, China’s government—along with the system under which the Chinese people live and work—is brutal and unjust, which means we need to do something. We can pray for an end to China’s tyranny, for wisdom for our leaders as they deal with Beijing, for eyes and hearts to see what’s happening, for the courage and compassion to act, and especially for those who are not free. As Hebrews 13:3 pleads,we are “to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.”

Dowd writes a monthly column exploring the crossroads of faith and public policy for byFaith.