In the Kafkaesque world of Chinese political repression, two words stand out as epitomizing continuity and adaptation in the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) reliance on incarceration to ensure its survival: lao (勞, labor) and gai (改, reform). Drawing from the Maoist philosophy that work for the betterment of the nation will purify one’s thoughts, the laogai, or “reform through labor,” is a system by which “antisocial” elements are removed from society and “reformed.” Not only are convicts and dissidents detained and “reformed,” but as Laogai: The Machinery of Repression in China shows, the state profits handsomely from the unpaid labor that takes places in those camps.
That system is not only rampant across China, with 909 laogai camps verified by the Laogai Research Foundation, but it is marked with innumerable abuses, including inadequate food and medical care, crowded, unsanitary and oftentimes dangerous work environments and disciplinary cruelty that, in many cases, has left permanent psychological scars on an inmate or resulted in his death.
According to research conducted by the authors, as many as 3 million to 5 million people are currently imprisoned in laogai camps, and between 40 million and 50 million have passed through them since 1949, when the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was born. Other statistics paint a disconcerting picture: Ninety-nine percent of people charged with “endangering state security” in China are found guilty and will likely end up in the laogai system; 500,000 people are believed to be in arbitrary detention across China at any given time; 40 percent of laogai prisoners are sentenced to more than five years of imprisonment, life imprisonment or death.
During the Mao era, convicts — from criminals to political dissidents — swallowed by the laogai system provided unpaid labor for massive infrastructure projects that the PRC simply could not have afforded had it paid for their work. As early as 1954, the Chinese government was stating that “Laogai production must serve the economic construction of the state and be a part of the general plan of production and construction of the state.”
Eventually, as China opened its doors to international trade under Deng Xiaoping’s (鄧小平) guidance, the laogai camp turned into a profitable instrument by which local officials could enrich themselves, by using unpaid labor in the budding factory sector. Throughout the 1990s, laogai enterprises were directly managed by prison officials and expected to meet all the costs of running the camp with the profits from the enterprises. The idea, the authors tell us, was to encourage laogai officials to operate at a profit.
Lax international regulations and weak enforcement of rules, as well as the use of the import-export company system to mask the origin of laogai products, allowed the CCP to get away with “reform through work” for decades. As the book informs us, as many as 314 businesses listed in Dun and Bradstreet databases are clearly linked to laogai camps, which were often situated right next to a factory or use factories as a front (this has now changed somewhat, in that rather than being directly managed by prison officials, laogai enterprises are now physically separated from prisons but are bound by contract). Laogai products documented in the book that have entered our markets include a variety of teas, rubber boots, wrenches, socks, artificial flowers and even sulfuric acid. The more consumers all over the world consume laogai products, the more the Chinese government will continue to profit from the imprisonment and exploitation of prisoners, the book argues. In fact, a case could be made that this could encourage the state to continue imprisoning a large number of Chinese for even minor violations, or for various forms of what the CCP regards as dissent.