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Special Exhibit
The Chinese Laogai

Today, despite having created a more robust legal system, the Chinese Communist Party remains in control of the courts, and this political interference comes at the expense of judicial independence and due process. Suspects often do not have adequate access to legal counsel and are unable to fully defend themselves. Indeed, guilt, not innocence, is presumed by the courts, and suspects often must confess crimes under duress. What legal rights they do possess are routinely violated by law enforcement personnel, and widespread corruption and collusion among government agencies makes it extremely difficult for victims of such abuse to address their grievances through legal recourse.

Moreover, under some circumstances, current Chinese law allows for police to arbitrarily detain individuals for long periods of time without clear judicial regulations. One such form of detention is the notorious laojiao (reeducation through labor) – an administrative measure which allows police to detain any person for up to three years without a trial. Laojiao enables the government to easily cleanse city streets of undesirables, including migrant workers, petitioners, vagrants, and dissidents, as was the case with Beijing during the 2008 Olympic Games.

In some cases, police have even committed healthy persons to psychiatric hospitals. Even prisoners who were convicted and have served out their sentences within the laogai may be forced to accept “jobs” at the same labor camps in which they were imprisoned or a nearby factory if they are deemed to be not sufficiently reformed. This practice, known in Chinese as jiuye (forced job placement), essentially extends the prisoner’s sentence indefinitely at the discretion of police or prison authorities.

All these practices clearly and severely violate international legal standards of due process. And regardless of their specific category of incarceration or the manner in which they came to be there, all inmates within the laogai system are subject to the two elements that distinguish it from most other penal systems—thought reform and forced labor.

Thought reform is perhaps one of the most unique aspects of the laogai system. Most other penal institutions, including the gulag, have never incorporated thought reform into their prisoners’ regimen, or at least have not placed as much emphasis on it as has been the case, historically, with the laogai in China.

The roots of China’s thought reform movement date back to the early 1950’s, when Premier Zhou Enlai instructed students and faculty at China’s colleges and universities that thought reform was necessary for intellectuals to adapt to the new socialist society. Of course, “counterrevolutionaries” and other “hostile elements” within the laogai were presumed to require thought reform as well. Under Mao, this translated into forced confessions, endless oral and written self-criticisms, and struggle sessions (wherein inmates were forced to criticize and humiliate one another).

Today, while the intense political study sessions common during Maoist times are no longer employed, many prisoners are still compelled to confess their crimes, recant their religious beliefs and political opinions, and, possibly, attend special reeducation classes. The entire process may entail peer pressure, humiliation, and physical abuse by fellow inmates as well as torture at the hands of prison staff. Collective forced labor continues to be regarded as the primary means by which to transform the thinking of prisoners.

The Chinese Communist Party views forced labor not only as a vital reformative tool but also as an important source of economic growth, functioning to support the national economy. Soon after its creation, Mao Zedong came to see the prisoners held within the laogai as a valuable untapped resource – free labor. An amendment to the “Resolution of the Third National Public Security Conference” in 1951 states:

The large number of people who are serving their sentences is an enormous source of labor. In order to reform them, in order to solve the problems of the prisons, in order that these sentenced counterrevolutionaries will not just sit there and be fed for nothing, we should begin to organize our Laogai work. In the areas where this work already exists, it should be expanded. 1