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
"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."
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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.