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

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

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.

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.

"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."

"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.