The Chinese word laogai, meaning “reform through labor,” refers to the most extensive system of forced labor camps in the world -- modeled after the Soviet gulag -- which has spanned the territory of China since the early days of the communist regime. The Laogai Research Foundation has identified 1,045 laogai camps still in operation today, though it is likely that many more exist.
The Chinese government has consistently defended the laogai system against criticism, claiming that the labor camps comprise a normal, even model prison system, no different than that of any other nation. It is unlikely, however, that the government would designate the most basic details regarding the operation and population of its “normal” prisons as closely guarded “state secrets.” A normal penal system should serve as an instrument of justice – one that serves to protect the people by detaining, punishing, and rehabilitating real criminals. The function of China’s laogai, however, extends far beyond that.
The entire legal system in China is viewed by the Communist Party as, foremost, a tool through which it can maintain its dictatorship over the people, consistent with Marxist-Leninist thought. Accordingly, throughout its reign, the Party has used the laogai to persecute and intimidate large numbers of Chinese people who posed no real threat to their fellow citizens.
Soon after achieving victory in the communist revolution, Mao Zedong oversaw the creation of the laogai with the assistance of Soviet experts. As the system was being developed throughout the 1950’s, Mao relied heavily upon the laogai to consolidate power, imprisoning within it many Kuomintang supporters and members of the bourgeoisie. They would later be joined by scores of the Party’s own, who were purged for deviating from whatever the Party line was determined to be at any given moment.
Although such purges ended when Deng Xiaoping came to power, he and his successors continued to suppress political dissent, whether in isolated incidents, such as when a journalist oversteps the boundaries in reporting on government corruption, or on a larger scale, as was the case with crackdowns on the Democracy Wall movement in 1979 and the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
As with any totalitarian regime, holding on to absolute power requires that it restrict certain freedoms, such as the freedoms of speech, press, assembly, and religion. Articles 35 and 36 of China’s 1982 constitution supposedly safeguard these freedoms, but the State has consistently put forth other laws that trump these protections in order to maintain control over its people. And although China has signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which also protects those rights, its government has not yet ratified the treaty, despite continuing calls for it to do so.
Consequently, the same sorts of dissidents who in Mao Zedong’s days were charged with “counter-revolutionary” or “anti-socialist” crimes are today charged with “inciting subversion of state power” or “revealing state secrets.” The so-called national security laws are so broad and vague that the Party can effectively use them against anyone whom it believes presents a challenge to its rule or even a threat to its image. As a result, the laogai has been filled not only with common criminals, but also with journalists (China is the largest jailer of journalists in the world), authors, cyber-dissidents, China Democracy Party members, public interest activists, human rights lawyers, underground “house church” leaders, Falun Gong practitioners, and discontented members of China’s oppressed ethnic minorities, especially Uyghurs and Tibetans.
All prisoners within the laogai, dissidents and common criminals alike, are victims of a Chinese regime that does not respect the rule of law. During the early years of communist rule, having established little in the way of a legal system, the regime often sentenced suspects without the benefit of a trial.