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Amelia Pang's Book Explores The Human Cost Of Our Cheap Goods


Look around you as you listen this morning. Chances are good - in fact, overwhelming - that something you can touch right now - your shirt, socks, running shoes, a coffee cup or pen - were made by enslaved and abused workers in China. We have bought products to use every day and every hour without thinking of the true human costs of things so cheap. Amelia Pang has written a powerful new book that traces what we buy back to those who made it, often under truly torturous conditions. Her book - "Made In China: A Prisoner, An SOS Letter, And The Hidden Cost Of America's Cheap Goods." Amelia Pang, who is an award-winning investigative journalist, joins us now.

Thanks so much for being with us.

AMELIA PANG: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: There actually was an SOS, an actual note, that turned out to be lots of notes that some workers in China snuck into products they knew would wind up in the United States. What did they say?

PANG: Yes. In 2012, an American woman named Julie Keith finds one of these notes in a Kmart product. It's from the political prisoner who had made and packaged this product. And it says, help, we are tortured. We have to work 20 hours a day. Please send this letter to a human rights group.

SIMON: I'm going to warn our listeners. Some of this is very hard to hear. We are talking about torture in many of these factories, aren't we?

PANG: Yes, especially in the case of political dissidents and ethnic minorities. A lot of them have to go through brainwashing classes. They're tortured if they don't renounce their religion, their ethnicity, their political stance. These are very gruesome places. They were originally based off of Soviet gulags, so the torture is pretty horrific.

SIMON: There is a phrase I'm afraid I isolated from your book - a woman who survived manufacturing down coats at the Masanjia Women's Work Camp...

PANG: Yes.

SIMON: ...Who says, quote, "women were beaten so often that when they were allowed showers, the water on the floor bled red."

PANG: Yes, that's what she said.

SIMON: And we're not just talking about one, two or even a dozen camps, are we?

PANG: No, no. It's very hard to document these camps, but there's at least a thousand. That's a very conservative estimate.

SIMON: One point I keep coming back to you in your book that - there are Americans listening to us right now who will eloquently denounce the original sin of slavery in America, who will buy something today made by slave labor in China and think nothing of it.

PANG: I'm really hesitant to make a direct comparison to slavery in the U.S. because it is a very different historical context, but there are chilling similarities. For example, there is a significant number of detained Uighurs in Xinjiang who are forced to work in cotton fields. Xinjiang produces a large portion of the world's cotton, and the U.S. imported about $9 billion worth of cotton goods from China last year. And so our recent legislation that banned cotton from Xinjiang was a very positive step in the right direction.

SIMON: Ms. Pang, if somebody listening wants to do the right thing and help change this, what can any one person do?

PANG: I would say look up the Australian Strategic Policy Institute's report on factories and companies that use Uighur forced labor. They found 82 major global brands, including BMW and Mercedes-Benz and Nike. And unfortunately, since the report came out about a year ago, not many of those companies have dropped those suppliers. Look at that list of 82 companies, and if a company that you frequently shop at or enjoy buying products from is on there, let the company know on social media that you're not OK with this.

SIMON: What would your hope be that will do to the companies and for people who are working in China under torturous conditions that amount to enslavery (ph)?

PANG: I hope that having companies end their contracts with Chinese suppliers that behave poorly in this way will push China to rethink its policies. You know, the situation has gotten a lot worse in recent years for forced labor due to the development of the Belt and Road Initiative, which is a trillion-dollar economic development strategy in China. At the heart of that lies Xinjiang, which is a key transportation hub that connects China to the Middle East, West Asia and Europe. Many people believe that's why the crackdown on Uighurs began - to protect trade for China. So if we take trade away from them by having our companies pull out of factories that are associated with Uighur forced labor, then that can be a very powerful way to push China to rethink using forced labor on such a large scale.

SIMON: Amelie Pang - her book, "Made In China: A Prisoner, An SOS Letter, And The Hidden Cost Of America's Cheap Goods" - thank you so much for being with us.

PANG: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: January 29, 2021 at 11:00 PM CST
A previous headline and intro incorrectly gave Amelia Pang's last name as Chang.