China's 'Re-Education Through Labor' System: The View From Within

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An inside look at the country's notorious prison camps.

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A policeman leads inmates as they walk along a road with their wrists tied to a rope in Emei Mountain region, Sichuan province on September 26, 2012. (Reuters)

In 1987, when Taiwanese President Chiang Ching-kuo finally lifted martial law after nearly forty years, Taiwan's Government Information held its first Taipei International Book Exhibition. The exhibition, which in 1987 gathered 67 publishers from eleven countries, has grown immensely since, attracting 420 international publishers from 60 different countries in 2012.

The exhibition--the "first formal diplomatic event held by the publishing industry in Taiwan"--is a symbol of liberalization and democratization of Taiwan, and its commitment to freedom of speech. Because of strict censorship in the People's Republic of China, many Mainland activists publish their work in Hong Kong and Taiwan, which guarantee freedom of the press. Among them is Harry Wu, a 75-year-old Chinese human rights activist who spent 19 years in so-called "re-education through labor," or laogai, a Chinese labor camp system originally modelled after the Soviet Gulag. Wu has written extensively about the laogai system, combining first-hand accounts with extensive research.

Detention at laojiao may last up to three years and does not require a judicial procedure.

Laogai is distinguished from laojiao , the more traditional Chinese labor camp system, in that the former is a prison used to detain individuals convicted under the Chinese Criminal Code, whereas the latter is used to detain those who have only committed minor offenses and thus are viewed by the government as being easy to reform. Detention at laojiao may last up to three years and does not require a judicial procedure; at laogai, one can be sentenced to life, though only after a trial.  Both systems aim to "re-educate" the detainees through penal labor.

In a discussion panel at National Taiwan University, Wu recounted his experience in the laogai camps and emphasized that this system still exists today. In 1994, 45 years after the system's establishment in 1949, the Chinese government officially abolished the term laogai, only to rename it jianyu, or prison. "Henceforth, the word 'laogai' will no longer exist, but the function, character and tasks of our prison administration will remain unchanged," announced the government in 1995, betraying any hope for actual reform. According to Wu's research, there are six to eight million inmates working in such prison camps today.

"My father was a right-wing banking official; we were well off. In 1949 the Communist Revolution began, and we lost all our property. My mother committed suicide," said Wu. "I spent nineteen years in laogai because I expressed my opinions."

It was in 1957, a year after the Communist Party began the Hundred Flowers Campaign, which encouraged its citizens to voice their true opinions on politics and society, that Wu was sentenced to life. He was just 21 years old, studying at the Geology Institute in Beijing.

"I was released in 1979, and in 1985, I went to the U.S.," Wu continued. "I was free. A free man. In a free society... You can't imagine what that feels like--you've never been not free."

Wu responded with vivid detail to a student's question asking him to depict life in the laogai camps. "Every morning we would all get up and line up, with the guards at the camp pointing guns at us. They would divide us up into groups and assign us to plots of land. Within that plot of land we would pick grapes, tealeaves, cotton, and other things. We couldn't go beyond our assigned space--there was an invisible line. Cross that line, and you're shot.

"Every worker had a labor quota he had to fulfil. We would pack a cardboard box with grapes and weigh it to make sure we'd fulfilled the quota. They would take the box and load it onto a plane, which flew out to Japan. Once, one of the workers became sick for three days and did not meet his quota. At the end of the day, when they lined us up and called our names, that guy was called to the front. 'You didn't meet your quota! You disobeyed Chairman Mao! You neglected your duty!' The troop leader at the camp yelled at him. They tied the guy's hands behind his back and onto a bamboo stick. They ripped his shirt off, exposing his chest bare.

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