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

"The leader continued to yell at him. After a while, they released the guy, and he fell tumbling into a ditch, tearing at his arms, chest, and face. His skin was covered by countless mosquito bites. 'What, I didn't hit you,' said the leader. To this day, I can still hear him screaming in pain."

Wu said that laogai camps are full of such "tricks" that allow not only leaders at individual camps but also the Chinese government to circumvent the rules and cover up the inhumanity of the system. For example, most laogai camps carry two names: a commercial name for outside trade and an official administrative name. "Camps might outwardly be called 'XX Farm,' 'XX Brick Factory,' or 'XX Mining Factory.' For example, there was one whose commercial name was 'Yunnan Province Jinma Diesel Engine Plant.' But its administrative name was 'Yunnan Province Prison No. 1.' In the end, they were all actually prisons."

"There's a department called Ministry of State Security Number 326 that deals with people deemed politically dangerous like me."

"Laogai provides free labor--it's a huge business," Wu explained. "I've asked Americans who do business with Chinese companies before: Do you know about laogai? Do you know how the goods are produced? Do you want to do business with people reap the benefits of laogai? But they don't know."

According to the Laogai Research Foundation, a non-profit organization that Wu established in 1992 to research and promote public awareness about laogai, "The Chinese government profits handsomely from the labor camp system by allowing goods made with forced labor to enter both domestic and international markets...Due to intentional deception on the part of laogai enterprises, lax international labelling requirements for manufactured goods, and the fact that many laogai products are traded via middlemen, it is extremely difficult to trace the origins of laogai products once they have entered the market."

The discussion eventually shifted to Wu's life as a "free man" in the US. When he arrived in the US in 1985, six years after his release from laogai, he had US$40 to his name. After three years of working odd jobs such as selling liquor and donuts, Wu began researching as a visiting professor at Stanford University's Hoover Institution in 1988, compiling personal accounts and detailed evidence on the laogai system. In 1992, he founded the Laogai Research Foundation in Washington, DC.

One student asked whether the Chinese government interferes with the Foundation's activities. Wu answered, "There's a department called Ministry of State Security Number 326 that deals with people deemed politically dangerous like me. At the Foundation, we receive blackmail threats and strange phone calls; our email system often goes down, too. Sometimes I find my car's tires are flat. It's much better in the U.S., though--it does a better job keeping these types of activities in check. Whenever these things happen, I just call the FBI.

"I'm a U.S. citizen now. But when I went to China in 1995 to gather more information about the laogai system, I was arrested and detained, although I had proper documentation. They sentenced me to 15 years in prison.

"Then something strange happened," continued Wu. "I was supposed to serve 15 years, then be deported. But--the Chinese officials told me they can deport me first." This was a compromise on the part of the Chinese government. Wu's detention led to an international campaign demanding his release. Former Capitol Hill Senator Jesse Helms, Wu's friend and supporter, wrote in a letter to a letter to then Secretary of State Warren Christopher: "Should harm come to Harry Wu while he is in Chinese custody, there will be severe implications for China in the United States Congress."  After 66 days of detention, Wu flew back to the U.S.

"In total, I am sentenced to 34 years in prison. For what? I don't know. I didn't rob a bank, I didn't shoot anyone, I didn't rape anyone. Why the 34 years? No one knows."

This post also appears at Tea Leaf Nation, an Atlantic partner site.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

This Short Film Skewers Hollywood, Probably Predicts Disney's Next Hit

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?


In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.


What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.


How Will Climate Change Affect Cities?

Urban planners and environmentalists predict the future of city life.


The Inner Life of a Drag Queen

A short documentary about cross-dressing, masculinity, identity, and performance


Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.



More in Global

Just In