Map of laogai in China
Laogai, the abbreviation for Láodòng Gǎizào (勞動改造/劳动改造), which means "reform through labor," is a slogan of the Chinese criminal justice system and has been used to refer to the use of prison labor and prison farms in the People's Republic of China (PRC). It is estimated that in the last fifty years, more than 50 million people have been sent to laogai camps. Laogai is distinguished from laojiao, or re-education through labor, which is an administrative detention for a person who is not a criminal but has committed minor offenses, and is intended to reform offenders into law-abiding citizens. Persons detained under laojiao are detained in facilities that are separate from the general prison system of laogai. Both systems, however, involve penal labor.
In 1990 China abandoned the term laogai and started classifying the facilities as "prisons" instead. China's 1997 revised Criminal Procedure Law brought an end to open laogai policy. The existence of an extensive network of forced-labor camps producing consumer goods for export to Europe and the United States became classified. Publication of information about China's prison system by Al Jazeera English resulted in its expulsion from China on May 7, 2012.
In early 2013, Chinese state-run media Xinhua reported that the country plans to reform its "controversial re-education through labor system this year."
During the 1950s and 1960s, Chinese prisons, similar to organized factories, contained large numbers of people who were considered too critical of the government or "counter-revolutionary." However, many people arrested for political or religious reasons were released in the late 1970s at the start of the Deng Xiaoping reforms.
In the 21st century, critics have said that Chinese prisons produce products for sale in foreign countries, with the profits going to the PRC government. Products include everything from green tea to industrial engines to coal dug from mines. According to the researchers James D. Seymour and Richard Anderson, the products made in laogai camps comprise an insignificant amount of mainland China's export output and gross domestic product, . They argue that the use of prison labor for manufacturing is not in itself a violation of human rights, and that most prisoners in Chinese prisons are serving time for what are generally regarded as crimes in the West. The Western criticism of the laogai is based not only on the export of products made by forced labor, but also on the claims of detainees being held for political or religious violations, such as leadership of unregistered Chinese House Churches. While the laogai has attracted widespread criticism for the poor conditions in the prisons, Seymour and Anderson claim that reports are exaggerated, stating that "even at its worst, the laogai is not, as some have claimed, 'the Chinese equivalent of the Soviet gulag.'"
The downfall of socialism has reduced revenue to local governments, increasing pressure for local governments to supplement their income using prison labor. At the same time, prisoners usually do not make a good workforce. The products manufactured by prison labor in China are of extremely low quality and have become unsalable on the open market in competition with products made by non-imprisoned paid labor.
Harry Wu has written books, including Troublemaker and Laogai, that describe the system from the 19(?)0s to the 1990s. Wu spent nineteen years, from 1960 to 1979, as a prisoner in these camps, for having criticized the government while he was a young college student. Almost starving to death, he eventually escaped to the US.
In Mao: The Unknown Story, the Mao biographer Jung Chang and historian Jon Halliday estimate that perhaps 27 million people died in prisons and labor camps during Mao Tse-tung's rule.They say that inmates were subjected to back-breaking labor in the most hostile wastelands, and that executions and suicides by any means (like diving into a wheat chopper) were commonplace.
Jean-Louis Margolin writing in The Black Book of Communism, which describes the history of repressions by Communist states, claims that perhaps 20 million died in the prison system. Professor R.J. Rummel puts the number of forced labor "democides" at 15,720,000, excluding "all those collectivized, ill-fed and clothed peasants who would be worked to death in the fields." Harry Wu puts the death toll at 15 million.
In 2008, the Laogai Research Foundation, a human rights NGO located in Washington, DC, estimated that approximately 1,045 laogai facilities were operating in China, and contained an estimated 6.8 million detainees. The number of detainees is uncertain.
Conditions in Laogai camps
The conditions that Laogai prisoners live in have been under scrutiny as the world learns more about them. The Chinese government has stated
“Our economic theory hold the human being is the most fundamental productive force. Except for those who must be exterminated physically out of political consideration, human beings must be utilized as productive forces, with submissiveness as the prerequisite. The Laogai system's fundamental policy is 'Forced Labor as a means, while Thought Reform is our basic aim.’”
Unlike Laojiao inmates, Laogai criminals are issued clothing. Depending on the locale and its economic situation, the quality of clothing can vary significantly. Some prisoners may receive black or grey while others wear dark red or blue. Also depending on location, the clothing is available in different thicknesses. Commonly stamped on the uniforms are the Chinese characters for fan and lao gai meaning "criminal" and "reform through labor," respectively. Also issued to the prisoners are a pair of shoes made of rubber or plastic. These minimums do not meet the needs of the prisoners, who must purchase underclothes, socks, hats and jackets with their meager monthly earnings of 2.5–3 yuan ($0.37–$0.44 USD as of April 11, 2009). To make escapees easily identifiable, the Chinese have adopted the practice of shaving prisoners' heads, a practice inherited from the Soviet Gulag and/or Tsarist Katorga. Jackets were rare in the Mao era and were commonly made from patches of old blankets rather than from original cloth. Washing clothes was also rare, but clothing supplies in prisons have improved since the mid-Deng-Jiang Era.
Food distribution has varied much through time, similar to its variation across the “over 1,155 documented laogai” camps. One near Beijing distributes between 13.5 and 22.5 kg of food per person per month. This is about average. The food is sorghum and corn, which are ground into flour and made into bread or gruel. The prisoners of this camp also receive three ounces of cooking oil per month. Every two weeks, the prisoners receive “a special meal of pork broth soup and white-flour steamed buns.” Important Chinese holidays, such as New Year’s, National Day, and the Spring Festival, are celebrated with meat dumplings, an exception in an otherwise meatless diet.
Food is distributed by one person per squad, a squad consisting of about ten people. This prisoner, called the zhiban or ‘duty prisoner’, delivers the food to the rest of his group in large bowls on a cart. This often involves pushing the cart a great distance to the place where the others are working. Each day prisoners receive gruel, bread, and a watery vegetable soup made from the cheapest vegetables available. Some camps have reported two meals a day while others allow three. Food is rationed according to rank and productive output, which is believed to provide motivation to work.
During the Mao era, food in prisons was very scarce, partly because of a nationwide famine (1959–1962) but also because of the harsher rules. Since so little food was available, prisoners would scavenge anything they came across while working. Cases were documented of prisoners eating “field mice, crickets, locusts, toads, grapevine worms, grasshoppers, insect larvae and eggs, and poisonous snakes.” Also, many inmates would steal produce from the fields they worked on, smuggling vegetables back to their barracks. In Jiabiangou, Gansu, around 2,500 out of 3,000 prisoners died of starvation between 1960 and 1962, with some survivors resorting to cannibalism.
Nutrition in the camps was a big problem, especially during the early 1950s through the 1960s, in the early years of the PRC (People’s Republic of China). Before the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) took control, hunger was rarely used to control prisoners. Early leaders of the CCP realized the power of withholding food from rebellious prisoners and, until recently, this practice was very common. Some camps in coastal regions have improved the quality and amount of food since the early nineties.
Living quarters and sanitation
The living quarters, commonly referred to as barracks in most Laogai literature, are relatively primitive. Most have floors made of cement or wood, but some are of only straw and/or earth. The latrine is a bucket, and no furniture is provided. The prisoners sleep on the floor in a space 30 cm wide, with ten people per room. New prisoners are forced to sleep nearest to the latrine while more senior ones sleep near the opposite wall.
Baths and showers are very rare, often not mentioned at all in memoirs. The only form of washing is the use of a water basin, which is only slightly less rare. This is ineffective, since the entire squad uses the same water. Basic essentials, such as a toothbrush and toothpaste, toilet paper, soap and towels, are not provided; prisoners must spend their wages to acquire them. Prisoners are known to have spread manure, both human and animal, and been required to eat immediately without being able to wash their hands.
The sleeping quarters are surrounded on all sides by a wall. This wall is about 20 feet high and topped with electrical fencing. There are also sentry towers on each corner. Outside this wall is forty feet of empty space, followed by another wall, similar to the first but larger.
Disease and pests
The Laogai camps are infested with many types of pests. Bed bugs are so numerous that at night they sometimes move in swarms. This behavior has earned them the Laogai nickname of tanks or ‘tanke’. They suck the blood of the prisoners, leaving little red welts all over their bodies. These welts itch, and severe cases have led to inmates scratching their skin raw, leading to dangerous infections. Another common pest is lice; some ‘convicts’ have been known to eat them to supplement their meager diet. No insecticide or pesticides are used in the camps. The prisoner Zhang Xianliang wrote that “the parasites on a single inmate’s underpants would be as numerous as the words on the front page of a newspaper.” He noted fleas would be so numerous that they would “turn his quilt purplish black with their droppings.” Roundworms are also a common threat to the prisoners' health, especially in laogai farms, where human excrement is used as fertilizer.
Along with a poor diet comes many diet-related diseases: beriberi, edema, and scurvy are the most common, due to lack of vitamins. Other health problems caused by the lack of healthy food include severe diarrhea or constipation from the lack of oil and fiber. These two are often left untreated and, added to the continuous strain of twelve hours of manual labor, weaken the immune system. Eventually, death follows many of these conditions. Two diseases rampant among the populations of these camps are tuberculosis and hepatitis. Highly contagious, these are also often left untreated until it is too late. Each morning, the cadre of the camp decides who is sick enough to stay in the barracks and miss the day of work. Many prisoners are forced to work when they are ill. Mental illness used to be very common during the Mao era, when prisoners had to spend two hours each evening being indoctrinated. The brainwashing that occurred over the amount of time people were imprisoned could be so intense that they were driven to insanity and, in many cases, suicide.
“Reform[ing] through labor”
Forced labor defines Laogai prison camps. The following is a description of an average day in the prison camp Tuanhe Farm by Harry Wu, executive director of the LRF (Laogai Research Foundation[where?]). He spent nineteen years in a Laogai prison camp like this one.
“Prisoners are roused from bed at 5:30 am, and at 6:00 the zhiban from the kitchen wheels in a cart with tubs of corn gruel and cornbread … at 7:00 the company public security cadre (captain) comes in, gathers all the prisoners together, and authorizes any sick prisoners to remain in the barracks. Once at the worksite, the captain delegates production responsibilities …
At lunchtime the zhiban arrives pulling a handcart with a large tub of vegetable soup, two hunks of cornbread for each prisoner, and a large tube of drinking water … after about thirty minutes, work is resumed until the company chief announces quitting time in the evening. Generally the prisoners return to the barracks at about 6:30 pm. Upon return it is once again a dinner of cornbread, corn gruel, and vegetable soup. At 7:30, the two-hour study period begins… At 9:30, no matter what the weather, all prisoners gather together outside the barracks for roll call and a speech from the captain. At around 10:00 everyone goes to bed.During the night no lights are allowed and no one is allowed to move about. One must remain in one’s assigned sleeping place and wait until 5:30 the next morning before getting up, when the whole cycle begins again.”
Quota filling is a big part of the inmates’ lives in Laogai camps. Undershooting or overshooting the target productivity governs their quality of life. Not making the number may result in solitary confinement or loss of food privileges. Generally, food rations are cut by 10–20% if a worker fails to meet the standard. Some prisoners excel and are able to do more than what is required of them. They sometimes receive extra or better quality food. It has been argued that this extra food is not worth the extra calories burned to be more productive, so many prisoners choose to do the minimum with minimum effort, thereby saving as much energy as possible.
Working conditions in Laogai camps are sub-standard.
“Investigators from the Laogai Research Foundation have confirmed sites where prisoners mine asbestos and other toxic chemicals with no protective gear, work with batteries and battery acid with no protection for their hands, tan hides while standing naked in vats filled three-feet deep with chemicals used for the softening of animal skins, and work in improperly run mining facilities where explosions and other accidents are a common occurrence.”
Career preparation has historically been used to justify forced labor prison systems around the world. In China, although this argument was used, career preparation was minimal until recently. Following release, the skills acquired within the Laogai prison (i.e. ditch-digging or manure-spreading) do not often lead to desirable employment. Inmates who entered the Laogai system with marketable skills were often assigned jobs utilizing these skills within the prison complex. Doctors, for example, were doctors within the Laogai camp often receiving preferential treatment, larger amounts of food, similar to the cadre, and a bed. “Inmates rarely leave with any new skills unless the training fits the camp's enterprising needs.” More recently however, programs have been introduced to train prisoners in useful trades.[why?]
While there are many types of Laogai complexes, most enterprises are farms, mines or factories. There are, according to the Chinese government, “approximately 200 different kinds of Laogai products that are exported to international markets.” “A quarter of China’s tea is produced in Laogai camps; 60 percent of China’s rubber-vulcanizing chemicals are produced in a single Laogai camp in Shengyang … one of the largest steel-pipe factories in the country is a Laogai camp … ” One Camp alone, Ziangride, harvests more than 22,000 metric tons of grain every year. Dulan County prisoners have planted over 400,000 trees.
The conditions in these camps are considered extremely harsh by most of the world's cultures. However, the Chinese government considers Laogai to be effective in controlling prisoners and furthering China’s economy. According to Mao Zedong, "The Laogai facilities are one of the violent component parts of the state machine. Laogai facilities of all levels are established as tools representing the interests of the proletariat and the people's masses and exercising dictatorship over a minority of hostile elements originating from exploiter classes." Activist Harry Wu has catalyzed the debate on the issue of Laogai, which is now becoming a more visible issue worldwide.
- In 2003, the word "laogai" entered the Oxford English Dictionary. It entered the German Duden in 2005, and French and Italian dictionaries in 2006.
- In 2008, Harry Wu opened the Laogai Museum in Washington, D.C., calling it the first ever United States museum to directly address human rights in China.
- Penal colony
- Human rights in the People's Republic of China
- Laogai Research Foundation
- Gulag, the equivalent of laogai in the Soviet Union
- Reeducation camp, the equivalent of laogai in Vietnam
- Jean Pasqualini
- Penal system in China
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"By the general estimate China's prison and labor camp population was roughly 10 million in any one year under Mao. Descriptions of camp life by inmates, which point to high mortality rates, indicate a probable annual death rate of at least 10 per cent."
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- 吴弘达 (Harry Wu) (January 19, 2007). "祝贺LAOGAI（劳改）进入意大利语词典". Retrieved December 12, 2008. English summary: "Congratulations! Laogai entered Italian dictionary!"
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- Human Rights Brief essay on laogai
-  laogai.org
- Mission Laogai – A project to increase student awareness of political injustice and elicit a sense of activism about injustices that occur in Laogai prisons.
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