October 2007
Speech by Peter Müller, IGFM Frankfurt, at Warszawa Congress

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The Laogai as a Tool of Suppression

After the setup of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the Laogai was established under the tutelage of Soviet experts, who – as was to be expected – used their knowhow of operating the Gulag camps.  The Gulag had been in existence since the 1920s.  In addition to a number of infrastructure projects, these experts helped the Chinese Communists to establish Qincheng Prison in Beijing Municipality in the 1950s.  Qincheng is isolated and highly secret.  Most inmates are political prisoners.  It was then designed and funded entirely by the Soviet Union.  In the early 1950s the news was widespread in China that there were 156 Socialist Construction Projects underway, fully supported by China's "Big Brother" the Soviet Union.  The 156 projects included steel plants, railways, river dams, etc.  However, it was not until 40 years later that people learned there were actually 157 projects, not 156.  The 157th project was Qincheng Prison.  It was the first Laogai General Brigade in Beijing Municipality.  After Stalin's death in 1953, Kruschev condemned the Great Purge and accused Stalin of abusing his power, after which the Soviet Union under Khrushchev, Andropov and Brezhnev was very different from the Soviet Union of Stalin's day.  Kruschev announced an end to talk of class struggle and class enemies, and many people were released from the Gulag.  The infamous Magadan Gulag camp, established in 1932, was shut down in 1956, after imprisoning around a million people.  Despite this development, the West still proclaimed the Soviet Union to be an "evil empire", as the Gulag still existed in some form up until 1991.  It is estimated that 25 million people died in the Gulag system, before it finally ended.

Following Mao's death in 1976, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and other Chinese Communist leaders never publicly condemned Mao and his methods.  Modern China remains under the firm control of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).  China is not a "former communist country", and its Laogai system remains fully operational. 

Chinese authorities have never hesitated to use the Laogai in their efforts to maintain domestic political control.  Literally, the word Laogai means "reform through labor”.  Today, the fundamental policy of the Laogai bureaucracy is: "forced labor is the means, while thought reform is the goal."  The main task of the prison camps continues to be the punishment and reformation of criminals to become a useful and positive member of the Socialst society.  More specifically, the Chinese Communist Party's economic theory maintains that human beings remain the most instrumental productive force.  Except for those who must be exterminated physically out of political considerations, human beings must serve as submissive "productive forces".  This was the same in Soviet and other communist Gulags.  But Chinese Communist theory maintains, violence can be used to force submission, but psychological and spiritual acquiescence are best.  The Laogai is not simply a prison system.  It is a political tool for maintaining the Communist Party's totalitarian rule.  The Chinese Ministry of Justice's 1988 Criminal Reform Handbook confirms, "The nature of the prison as a tool of the dictatorship of the working classes is determined by the nature of state power”.  Thus far we have failed to determine the total number of victims of Soviet labor camps conclusively, and we will most probably never be able to determine the number of inmates that have been held in the Chinese Laogai camp system.  Even when the Communist Chinese political regime no longer exists, and if all files remain intact in public security units, this number will not be available.  For example: in the period from 1958 to 1962, the Chinese Communist Party made every county run its own Laogai facility.  A county magistrate, even a commune Communist Party secretary or a militia commander could send anyone to the Laogai. This was called the "dictatorship of the masses." It is unlikely that  public security units do have the data regarding the numbers of people who were sent to the Laogai in this way.

Today we do not even know precisely how many Laogai camps have existed in the PRC, and people are only allowed to visit "model prisons.".  The UN Special Rapporteurs were also refused entry into camps of their own choice. 

The CCP's "thought reform" has certainly achieved a great deal of success, and there are many people who have been "reformed”.  The Laogai Research Foundation estimates that since 1949, around 40-50 million people have been imprisoned in the Laogai, of which approx. 20-25 million have perished, i. e. they were tortured to death.  However, the CCP treats all information related to the Laogai as a state secret, and therefore no one can definitively ascertain such statistics.

China's Laogai system is the most important mechanism in the implementation of the Communist totalitarian regime.  The stated maxim of the CCP's Laogai is that "transformation is the first priority, and production is the second priority”.  Beijing leaders have for decades emphasized that Laogai work units must produce two kinds of "products": one, qualified "socialist new people", and two, various types of labor products needed for the nation's economy. The former, the political product, is the more important of the two, while the latter produces an economic profit for the political regime.

There is no generally agreed figure for the number of victims of the Leninist/Stalinist camps in the Soviet Union, although Robert Conquest has estimated a total of 10 million victims during the Stalinist terror of the late 1930s.  Of course, not all of these victims died in Soviet camps.

In order to uphold its rule and to suppress its people, every dictatorship must be accompanied by a prison system, whether it is a concentration camp (in which the prisoner's work is exploited for economic gain) or other types of camps.  In every respect, the Chinese Communist labour reform camps-- in terms of scope, cruelty, and the number of people imprisoned—not only rivals the Soviet systems.  In fact it surpasses it.

Since the U.S. Senate held its first hearing on the Laogai in China in 1990, the Laogai has become a serious topic in the international community.  Evidently, the Beijing government is deeply concerned over the issue of the Laogai, which actually is the crux of the CCP's political power.  In 1992, the Beijing government issued its white paper on the Laogai - the first-ever official, systematic reaction to the international community. 

In December 1994, the National People's Congress in Beijing made a decision - while not altering the essence of the "Laogai- Prison", i.e., the tool of suppression of the "people's democratic dictatorship”- the word Laogai would no longer be used, all Laogai detachments were to be renamed as prisons, and all Laogai administrative facilities in the judicial system were to be renamed as prison administrative facilities. The Beijing government claimed that this would contribute to the "international struggle for human rights".  There are variations of the LAOGAI namely the Laojiao which means Reeducation by Labour, the Jiuye for younger delinquents, and not to forget the psychiatric clinics, all of them tools of suppression.  Laogai is certainly the worst

Laogai versus Gulag – a Comparison

Both China and the Soviet Union are communist countries.  They are (or, in the case of the Soviet Union, were) guided by identical ideologies and theories, politically, ideologically, economically and culturally. 

But there are two major differences between the Laogai and the Gulag:

First, the Gulag did not have a "thought reform" system.  KGB agents did not believe men's thoughts could be reformed.  The Soviets had a complete set of tools for intimidation, deception and temptation, but they did not believe that "criminals" could be reformed into "new people."  Their educator, Anton Makarenko, told them that while juvenile delinquents could be reeducated, no political prisoners could be reformed.

Secondly, Soviet prisoners were forced to hard labour, but authorities did not think labor was a means of "thought reform." They did use countless means to force prisoners to labour, but that was for material production and national economic benefits. Prisoners were forced to engage in primitive labour, such as uranium production in Magadan, building the Stalin Railroad in Siberia, canal digging, and timber felling.

Chinese communists do and did the same, forcing prisoners to work on the Huai River harnessing project, do Baotou Steel Plant work, and engage in Yingtan-Xiamen Railroad work. These projects were masterpieces of primitive prisoner labour.  However, the Gulag never succeeded in bringing the economy into line with a planned national economy, like the Laogai did.  In fact, Laogai industrial and agricultural products not only constitute a portion of China 's domestic consumption, they are also exported to foreign countries. In this sense, the Laogai is unique in the world.

Laogai Production

There is no doubt that Laogai production cannot constitute a significant share of China's national economy, first because prisoners' forced labour cannot be high-tech production, second it is difficult to train prisoners into professional technicians and workers; third prisoners are not selected on a competitive basis and will not become permanent workers; and lastly, prisoners are engaged in labour which is punitive and compulsive in nature, which precludes any form of economic incentive.  This is common sense, and is known to every Laogai researcher who has minimal professional knowledge.  It is uninformed to exaggerate the Laogai's share of China's national economy.  This, however, does not deny the Laogai's important position in China's national economy.  For the Beijing government, Laogai production has always been an important source of funds for maintaining and developing the Laogai system.  Look at the facts:

1. For the majority of the time since the founding of the People's Republic of China more than 50 years ago, the central and local governments have never needed to formulate a budget for the Laogai. Laogai production not only solves prisoners' daily life necessities, production expenditures, and prison policemen's salaries and benefits.  It also transfers much of its profits to higher authorities.  For instance, during the Cultural Revolution, the Laogai system sent more than 4.55 billion RMB to higher authorities.  Before 1979, the system involved payment partly in kind and partly in cash.  Laogai units were then not independent accounting units, and revenue and expenditures were planned in a unified way by respective provinces, which were accounting units.  After 1979, as the result of the policy of economic reform, Laogai units began assuming sole responsibility for their profits or losses and stopped at nothing in seeking profits, which caused chaos both economically and politically.  Thus, in 1988, the central government made a decision: prison policemen's salaries were to be allocated by the central government in a unified way, while part of Laogai units' profits were to be turned over to higher authorities.

2. Primitive physical labor comprises the bulk of Laogai production, such as digging reservoirs, highway and railroad construction, wasteland reclamation, and mine digging-- labor for which an output value can hardly be estimated.  On China's mainland, many major engineering projects, such as the Huai River harnessing project, Yingtan-Xiamen Railroad work, and wasteland reclamation in northeast China, Qinghai, and Xinjiang would have been impossible without the slave labour of millions of prisoners.  For instance, in 1955, Premier Zhou Enlai ordered two million prisoners to be escorted to the Huai River project site.  The next year, about one million of them died as a result of exhausting labour, diseases, hunger, and torture.  In 1956, an examination of these mistakes was made at the national public security conference, which stressed that prisoners' labour and living conditions should be improved.

Nevertheless, the fact that it is difficult to reach the number of inmates in the Laogai camp system does not mean that it is not necessary to do so, each inmate being a small organic part of the Laogai inferno.  We have to honour their fate by bringing their memory to the public.

What actually is the fate of the people sent to the Laogai ?  How do they suffer ?  Generally speaking the living conditions in Gulag and Laogai camps are rather similar - Hard labour daily for up to 12-14 hours, in China 7 days a week and only 4-5 holidays per annum.  The day’s task is followed by lecture and indoctrination time of at least 2 hours.  Both systems “offered” unacceptable sleeping and sanitary conditions, insufficient and/or unsuitable clothing, almost no visitors and no mail, never enough food, never enough sleep.  Both systems use heavy punishments such as solitary confinement, reduced food, sleep prevention, interrogations at night, executions, of course mass executions too, torture, and – even worse - torture and slayings by fellow inmates. 

On top of all these dreadful conditions the Laogai exercises sometimes very sophisticated mental torture, e. g. by demanding self confessions.  Once done – the prisoner has no chance of evading or refusing – renewed confessions are requested.  Since the prisoner has not received an official court sentence, he does not know when he shall be free again.  Thus there is no hope of freedom.  It is destroyed on purpose.  Spying and reporting on fellow inmates is demanded to prove one’s ‘progress to personal reform’.  There is no privacy whatsoever, in some camps the prisoners live and work day and night without any clothing – in order to break down their remaining resistance and their personalities.  Probably worst of all is a constant flood of letters from friends and relatives, incl. parents, children, spouses.  These letters accuse the prisoner of political and other “crimes”.  The writers distance themselves from the prisoner, canceling all former relationships.  The prisoner is thus totally deprived of all warmth, hope, and confidence.  Consequently the suicide rate is high, very very high. 

Regardless of the exact numbers, millions of people are currently suffering within the Laogai, and more are sentenced to serve time in the camps every day.  The Chinese government considers national statistics about the Laogai to be state secrets.  But the Laogai is a difficult thing to keep secret.  It remains the most extensive and secretive network of forced labor camps operated by any country in the world.

We have no right to forget about those deprived of their freedom in the Laogai. 
The Laogai is not a dying institution as some have suggested. It is true that the composition of the camps has changed. In the past, the majority of criminals were jailed for political reasons.  The majority of today's inmates are incarcerated for more common crimes. Nevertheless, this does not indicate a fundamental change in the nature of the Laogai.  To the contrary, the Chinese government's dependence on the Laogai as its primary tool of suppression is as strong now as it was in the days of Chairman Mao Zedong's rule.

For those imprisoned for common crimes but deprived of their due process or forced to labor under barbaric conditions, the Laogai is alive. For those imprisoned for publicizing their beliefs, for those caught fighting for Tibetan and Uighur independence or Trade Unions, for those persecuted for asserting their religious rights, the Laogai is very much a living institution.  Only the attention of the world can bring about an end to their suffering.

Why do business with the People’s Republic of China ?  Why travel there as a tourist ?  Why invest money there ?  Why buy Chinese goods ?  Why support the Olympic Games of a criminal regime ?

The inhuman Laogai system in China justifies each and every boycott.