Shopping for a Conscience: Made in China by Amelia Pang

It was the least I could do, to read this book, Made in China: A Prisoner, an SOS Letter and the Hidden cost of America’s Cheap Goods, during the 2022 Olympics.

Knowing that China isn’t the bastion of fair labor, there’s a certain amount of moral squeamish-ness to watching the world come together in the name of sport in a country that is alleged to use forced labor to prop up its burgeoning manufacturing industry.

Sure, yeah — the forced labor thing is bad, but … Nathan Chen! USA hockey! Shaun White! Curling!, says my mind while emotionally detaching from those inconvenient feelings of guilt and remorse. It’s patriotic, my head and heart remind me. I mean, my NOT watching isn’t going to change anything, so ….

And now that I’ve finished investigative reporter Amelia Pang’s dive into the Laogai practices of the Chinese manufacturing industry, I, at the least, am much more informed about what forced labor really is. And I’ll think more than once or twice about ancillary cheap shopping from here on out.

Full disclosure — I am very friendly with Pang, as up until recently we were work colleagues. I already knew she is an amazing storyteller. And it’s this trait she leans into to weave a taut, suspenseful narrative that reads less like nonfiction and more like a thriller. Following Falung Gong dissident’s Sun Yi’s journey from birth and childhood to adulthood, marriage, work, activism and detention, readers are exposed to the nuts and bolts of China’s Reeducation Through Labor (RTL) camps — many more commonly operating today as drug rehab facilities.

In a word, that journey is awful.

And while it may be easy to sit on this side of the globe and think that our freedom-loving nation has nothing to do with the abhorrent working and living conditions depicted in Made In China, it would also be wrong. Love fast fashion? Guilty. Fun, seasonal tchotchkes? (Raises both hands in the air ….) Guilty! Deep discount sales? GUILTY.

Americans’ desire to score a deal, buy more for less, and materialism in general are one of the engines that drive Chinese manufacturers to resort to illegitimate sourcing to keep with demand. (When I think about all the junk my kids came home from school with after class parties — those well-meaning classroom parents putting together swag bags filled with trinkets ordered from the Oriental Trading Company … and now knowing it was probably a political prisoner being “detained” for any number of reasons, being forced to work around the clock in the worst conditions, that made that Valentine’s pencil … yikes.)

We can and should do better. And I know we won’t. Right now, the political climate is so divisive, we can’t even all get on the same page about public discourse in our own country, let alone political prisoners somewhere else. And I’m honestly not sure what that says about us as humans. Honestly, it’s just embarrassing.

But if you are even just a little bit curious … interested in learning more about the very high cost of very cheap goods … inspired to be a more educated consumer … then take the time to read this book, and let these stories in so that perhaps you can adopt a more ethical lens through which you make some of your buying decisions. It’s a powerful story and I am grateful to Pang for sharing it with us.

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