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Special Exhibit
The Chinese Laogai

Just as forced labor was used to construct the Great Wall hundreds and thousands of years ago, laogai prisoners have been utilized to carry out many of the country’s major public works projects, beginning with the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950’s and continuing through today, with prisoners employed in diverse forms of labor across the country, including construction, farming, and mining. Additionally, prisoners at many labor camps are forced to manufacture, assemble, or otherwise process products that are sold to consumers across the world. With no compensation and inadequate food, laogai prisoners are forced to work long hours under extremely harsh conditions without proper equipment, often to the detriment of their health and safety. Those prisoners who do not meet production quotas may be beaten or tortured.

The economic exploitation of laogai prisoners has proven to be an extremely effective means of generating profits for prison administrators and earning revenue for the local and national governments via enterprise taxes. In fact, the generous profit margins possible from this free labor have encouraged expansion of the laogai’s economic activity. Labor production within the laogai is monitored by Chinese authorities, and those whose performances do not reach government standards face “corrective” procedures. For a time, laogai units were required to be financially self-sufficient, and today many produce beyond such levels.

Despite being party to international and bilateral trade agreements which prohibit the trade of forced-labor products, China continues to encourage laogai enterprises to export their products to world markets, so as to contribute to China’s rapid economic growth and foreign currency reserves. The Chinese government denies this practice, pointing to Chinese laws that forbid the export of laogai products. Simultaneously, though, the government defends itself by arguing that such laws are difficult for the national government to enforce as many laogai camps are administered at the provincial or local level.

The international community has addressed the issue of the laogai on several occasions. The US House of Representatives (2005), the German Bundestag (2007), and the Italian Parliament (2007) have all passed resolutions condemning the laogai system and calling on their governments to take steps to prohibit the import of laogai products. Although the import of forced-labor products is already illegal under U.S. trade law, several factors help to obscure the original source of these products, making them difficult to identify. Most laogai prison facilities operate not only under an internal administrative name (as recognized by the Ministry of Justice) but also a commercial enterprise name under which they can publicly do business. Also, the involvement of many middlemen, including contractors and trading companies, complicates efforts to trace the path of laogai products back to their production. There is, however, much evidence, including research conducted by the Laogai Research Foundation, to suggest that laogai products are indeed being exported to foreign countries.

For many prisoners, thought reform and forced labor are only the beginning of the severe cruelties they must face. While the exact figures are state secrets and thus unknown outside of the Chinese government, human rights groups estimate that the number of executions carried out in China every year amounts to several thousand—more than all other countries combined.

Moreover, the world became aware in the 1990’s that China had found a new way to exploit prisoners, even after death. Undercover investigations revealed that Chinese hospitals were harvesting the organs of executed prisoners and transplanting them to privileged Party officials or, for a profit, to wealthy foreigners. In 2006, China’s Vice-Minister of Health, Huang Jiefu, publicly admitted that most of the organs used in China’s organ transplants, which rank second in the number conducted each year only to the U.S., came from executed prisoners. Although Chinese medical officials recently agreed not to use organs from prisoners (except to donate to their immediate family members), the law still does not clearly prohibit the practice, and many human rights advocates have little confidence that it will disappear. Disturbingly, the economic forces of supply and demand seem to have infiltrated even this most solemn realm of justice.

In the face of growing criticism over the laogai, China has responded with defiance and in some cases with cosmetic modifications. In 1994 it ceased using the word “laogai,” and instead began referring to the system as “jianyu”, meaning “prison”. This change, however, was in name only, and it did not reflect any actual change to the structure or operation of the laogai.

Notwithstanding the misrepresentations of the Chinese government, the term “laogai” was later added to the Oxford English Dictionary; the German dictionary, Duden Die Deutsche Rechtschreibung; and the Italian Dictionary, Universale, thereby preserving within the annals of history the true nature of the brutal institution.

Only after the word “gulag” became well known, owing primarily to the efforts of the late Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, did pressure for the system to end begin to build. Hopefully, the same will hold true for the laogai. Until that time, democracy cannot flourish in China.



Author Bio:

Harry Hu is the Executive Director of The Laogai Research Foundation



1 Sun Xiaoli, Zhongguo laodong gaizao zhidu de lilun yu shijian (The Theory and Practice of the Chinese Laogai System). Beijing: Zhongguo zhengfa daxue chubanshe, 1994, p. 21.