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My children, and now my grandchildren, love toy horses, perhaps because my own mother excelled in equestrian sports. When I was a child, my toy horses were made in Italy. Now, they are made in China. There are some, of high quality, manufactured in Europe, but buying such expensive toys for small children seems extravagant. Yet, my decision is made. This coming Christmas I will buy European toy horses for my grandchildren and persuade them to get rid of the cheaper Chinese ones.

I don’t do this to protect the European economy against Chinese unfair competition. For me, it is a question of human rights and religious liberty. I am a scholar of religion in China, and one increasingly worried by President Xi Jinping’s crackdown on all religions. I gathered documents about many stories of persecution. One concerns toy horses.

Several million religious believers have been arrested and are detained in different kind of re-education camps or jails in China. More than three million are Uyghurs and other Muslims. Others are Tibetan Buddhists, dissident Catholics, house church Protestants, members of Falun Gong and of other banned religious movements. The single most persecuted group today is a Christian new religious movement known as The Church of Almighty God (CAG). More than 400,000 CAG members have been arrested due to their faith, and hundreds of cases of torture and extra-judicial killing have been documented and mentioned in official documents of the United Nations, the U.S. State Department, and other international bodies.

One such victim was a woman from Shandong Province called Liu Jixia. She was 42 when she was arrested for her missionary activities on behalf of the CAG. In 2007, she was sentenced to serve eighteen months in the Ji’nan “re-education through labor” camp. There, she was compelled to make toy horses. She had to work for 17 hours every day, then for 20 hours when production needed to be increased. The camp diet was very poor, consisting only of cornmeal and pickles.

After a few months, Liu developed a severe case of nephritis, due to overwork and malnutrition. She reported to the camp’s medical personnel but was told she was not sick enough to stop working, and toy horses needed to be produced. When she was released in 2009, her nephritis had become chronical. Visits and harassment by the police added to her stress. She went from hospital to hospital, but her condition did not improve. On August 20, 2012, Liu died at the First People’s Hospital in Linqing, Shandong.

Her case is not isolated. In May 2003, another CAG member, Ms. Deng Xiufen, from Zhejiang Province, had died at age 35 in the Moganshan Labor Re-education Camp in Wukang Town, Huzhou City, Zhejiang, where she was compelled to work as a seamstress. Malnutrition and overwork caused her death, together with abuse by the guards. Members of the CAG and other banned religious groups in re-education camps are forced to have yellow card bearing the words “Special Disciplinary Control” hung on their chest and are singled out for abuse.

On March 9, 2015, Ms. Wang Honli was sentenced to five years in a jail in Yunnan for having been active in the CAG. She was compelled to stitch hems and pack up jeans and assigned quotas. These kept her busy until late evening, and when she could not fulfill her quotas she was punished with extra work. In May 2017, her family visited her and reported that her weight had fallen from 55 to just 32 kg. On October 1, 2017, she died in jail.

In these cases, all duly documented, slave labor led to death. I have personally interviewed dozens of CAG members who survived and escaped abroad, but whose health was seriously compromised by years of slave labor in the camps. While I have researched mostly CAG cases, for a book I published on the subject, there are similar horrific (horror?) stories of slave labor about Uyghurs, Falun Gong practitioners, and others.

All this raises serious ethical and political problems for governments, the business community, and consumers in democratic countries. Our shops and homes are full of products made in China. How many of them come from the slave labor of prisoners sentenced for their religious beliefs? Is the blood of Sister Liu Jixia and her fellow prisoners of conscience in the Ji’nan camp on the toy horses my grandchildren play with?

In August 2019, the NGO Citizen Power Initiatives for China published a detailed report, Cotton: A Fabric Full of Lies. The report revealed that Xinjiang has been transformed into the largest cotton production area in China, something it was not before. The reason for this development is the slave labor of more than three million Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and other Muslims detained in the dreaded Xinjiang’s transformation through education camps – where not all inmates are Muslim since CAG members are forced to work and be “re-educated” there too.

Because of the report, legislation was introduced in the U.S. preventing American companies from importing or purchasing products manufactured in Chinese labor camps and jails. Europe should follow suit.

Sociologist and Editor-in-chief of “Bitter Winter”, a daily magazine on Religious Liberty in China.