In October 2012, Julie Keith opened a Halloween decoration that she had bought for her daughter, and in it found a letter written by an inmate imprisoned for his beliefs at Masanjia, one of China’s most notorious labor camps.
The discovery set Julie, a mother of two living in Damascus, Oregon, on a journey that she says changed her life. A recent documentary describes this journey as its producers managed to track down the man behind the letter, Sun Yi.
Letter From Masanjia, directed by Leon Lee, was one of about 150 films screened in the Portland Film Festival on Friday, Oct. 26. It received a second showing on Oct. 28 upon winning the festival’s Audience Award.
Sun Yi was sent to the Masanjia labor camp in 2008 for his faith in Falun Gong, a Chinese spiritual practice banned by the communist authorities. He and other inmates were forced to work long hours making imitation tombstones — the kind of Halloween decoration that ended up in Julie’s home.
Though she bought the tombstone in 2010, it would be another two years before Julie opened the packaging and discovered the “letter in a bottle,” as she called it. After some attempts to contact human rights organizations, Julie gave Sun’s message to The Oregonian, which ran a story on Christmas Eve 2012.
Between the grueling labor and inhuman torture intended to make Sun recant his beliefs at Masanjia, he painstakingly wrote 20 letters in English and Chinese while lying in his jail bed at night, then hid them in the decorations.
The letter that Julie received is the only one known to have been discovered, but it had far-reaching effects. In 2013, The New York Times tracked down Sun Yi, who identified himself using the alias Mr. Zhang at the time.
Located in the northeastern province of Liaoning, Masanjia held inmates ranging from petty criminals to Falun Gong practitioners like Sun Yi, who adhere to a set of teachings centered on the principles of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance.
As the news was reported more widely, filmmaker Leon Lee managed to get in touch with Sun Yi, who had since been released. Using software to bypass China’s strict Internet censorship, Sun had found out about Julie’s discovery of his letter and began collaborating with Lee via encrypted networks.
Sun documented his experiences at Masanjia with hand-drawn illustrations. With training from Leon Lee, and assisted by other Falun Gong practitioners and his wife Fu Ning, he shot video on location in China recording the events leading up to his 2016 exodus to Jakarta, Indonesia.
“Because of my previous films, I was not able to return to China safely,” Lee said in an interview with SupChina discussing the difficulties of his work. “He, on the other hand, had no idea how to use a camera. So we had to work together.”
Getting footage out of China was challenging as well. “Every once in a while, [Sun] would send me a hard drive of the raw footage,” Lee said. “He would encrypt them in a way so there was only one chance to unlock it. If I inputted the wrong password, the hard drive would be lost forever. So that’s how we did this.”
The Chinese authorities officially shut down Masanjia, along with the entire “reform-through-labor” camp system, in 2013. But abuses still continue in other forms, such as “legal education centers” or “black jails.” Human rights groups estimate that hundreds of thousands to millions of Falun Gong practitioners have been detained at some point during the nearly 20 years of persecution.
More recently, the international community has condemned the Chinese government for placing over 1 million Uyghurs, a Turkic Muslim ethnic group living in the northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang, in concentration camps and subjecting the rest of the Uyghur population to pervasive, high-tech surveillance.
Being involved with Sun Yi’s experience was eye-opening and sobering for Julie, who said that she thinks more about where her purchases come from. She also had great respect for Sun, who in the process of making the film was able to interview and befriend some of the Masanjia prison guards who had been personally responsible for torturing him.
“His ability to forgive amazes me,” she said.
In 2017, Julie made a trip to Jakarta, where Sun Yi was awaiting political asylum. That year, however, Sun was contacted by suspected Chinese government agents and died under mysterious circumstances on Oct. 1.
“He lost all his memory, within two months,” Julie said at the Oct. 28 showing of Letter From Masanjia in Portland. “And then shortly thereafter, he passed away.”
David Kilgour, a senior Canadian lawyer and former government official known for his work in investigating China’s organ harvesting abuses, wrote in an article published by The Epoch Times that Sun Yi’s death, officially due to kidney problems, was likely foul play.
“[Sun’s] family reported that he had not previously had kidney problems,” Kilgour wrote. “They… claimed that the hospital had rushed to have his body cremated. We can all infer what happened.”
Speaking about the need to raise awareness about human rights abuses in China, which is the United States’ biggest trading partner, Julie said: “People in Portland don’t seem to be aware of this, that it’s going on. We definitely need to continue to spread the word.”
Letter From Masanjia has screened in over 20 locations in eight countries, and has won 10 awards, including an award for animated scenes based on Sun Yi’s illustrations.