New Internationalist

The Violent Machine

Issue 337

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Slavery / FORCED LABOUR / TRAFFICKING


The labour camps that Mao
Zedong set up to turn criminals
into revolutionaries now enslave
dissidents to world markets -
as Harry Wu knows from his
own experience.

The violent machine

--Photo caption--
Top: Shandong Laiyang prison. Below: a photograph smuggled out of Drapchi prison in Tibet.
Both photos:
Laogai Research Foundation

As a survivor of 19 years’ imprisonment in a Chinese labour reform camp, a mechanized system for physically, mentally and spiritually crushing human beings, I feel compelled to investigate and decry them. History dictates that all authoritarian regimes must maintain a mechanism to suppress political dissent and consolidate control. In China today this is the Laogai – an institution of fear, control and modern-day slavery. From the Mandarin, the word ‘Laogai’ translates literally as ‘reform through labour’ and describes a system of forced-labour camps spanning China from the highly industrialized prison-factories of the eastern coastal cities to the isolated, fenceless farms of the west.

The Laogai never has been and is not now a simple prison system. It was established as and remains a political tool for maintaining the rule of the Chinese Communist Party. The Laogai Research Foundation has identified over a thousand forced-labour camps containing an estimated six to eight million people.

A photograph smuggled out of Drapchi prison in Tibet. Chinese Communist ideas regarding reform through labour have their roots in the writings of Marx and Engels as they were interpreted by the Soviets and then reinterpreted by Mao Zedong. Fundamentally, they promote the idea of criminals as exploiters who do not possess the ideology of the proletariat. In order to be stripped of their exploiter ideology, they must be taught to work, like the members of the proletariat, and therefore take on their revolutionary ideology.

As a result, the Laogai forces its prisoners to plant, harvest, engineer, manufacture and process all types of products for sale in domestic and international markets. As rules of supply and demand cause shifts in the international economy, the Laogai has adapted to new conditions. Many Laogai camps that once engaged in the production and processing of raw materials have now moved into the consumer-goods market, producing and assembling goods on contract for other businesses. These businesses in turn ship the goods off to consumers in China and around the world.

Since the establishment of Deng Xiaoping’s ‘open door’ policy and the formation of the ‘socialist market economy’, the Chinese Government has sought to operate the Laogai at a profit. The Government rewards the officials who operate productive camps, and officials in turn punish prisoners who fail to meet labour quotas. The Chinese Government publishes entire books on Laogai economics to train officials at all levels of the system on the efficient use of forced labour and improvements in management.

In this mesh of profit and politics persists a system where prisoners labour not for earned wages or even for their own spiritual reform, but for the distinct purpose of generating a profit for the government that holds them captive. 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. In many camps prisoners are regularly required to work more than 15 hours a day and food is rationed according to how much a prisoner produces. Reports of other forms of torture are also common and include beatings with fists and cattle prods, exposure to extreme heat and cold, sleep deprivation, shackling, solitary confinement and starvation. Recent press reports confirm the deaths of over a hundred followers of the Falun Gong movement resulting from beatings in various labour camps, detention centres and re-education through labour facilities.

It is impossible to know the extent of export activity in the Laogai or, unfortunately, to compile a list of ‘products to avoid’, so that Western consumers may purchase goods with no fear of contributing to such a system. However, according to one document of the Chinese Government itself, approximately 200 different kinds of Laogai products are exported to international markets. A quarter of China’s tea is produced in Laogai camps; 60 per cent of China’s rubber-vulcanizing chemicals are produced in a single Laogai camp in Shengyang; one of the largest and earliest factories to export hand tools operates from a camp in Shanghai; an unknown but significant amount of China’s cotton crop is grown by prisoners; one of the largest steel-pipe factories in the country is a Laogai camp; the largest binder-clip factory in China, which exported to the United States, was recently forced to close for contracting with a Laogai camp.

I was able to survive only by reducing myself to my most primal state

In 1960 I was a geologist, 23 years old, a graduate of the Beijing College of Geology. I spoke my mind. I criticized the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. I said it was wrong for one Communist country to violate the human rights of another Communist country. I was labelled a troublemaker, from a reactionary, capitalist family and a Catholic school. I was sent to the labour camps to remove my bourgeois opinions and become a new Socialist person. The brutal regimen of labour I endured in my 19 years of prison did little to reform or ennoble me. I was able to survive only by reducing myself to my most primal state: I became an animal, caring only about satisfying my basic needs. I have heard the same horrible reality echoed in the stories of countless other Laogai survivors. From Mao’s time to the current day, the Laogai brings its victims to their knees and leaves them to crawl.

In his book of essays and quotations, Mao directed: ‘Marxism maintains that the State is a machine of violence for one class to rule another. The machine of violence is operated through the army, police, courts, prisons and other necessary facilities...The Laogai, as a part of this state machine, is a facility of violence. It is a tool representing the interests of the proletariat and the masses to exercise dictatorship over a minority of hostile elements.’ According to this philosophy Chinese leaders designed their systematic mechanism, the Laogai, to eliminate a segment of society that they found unacceptable and to repress an entire nation. They created the Laogai just as the Soviet Union created the gulag, South Africa created apartheid and Pol Pot created the killing fields. We cannot condemn the evil actions of Stalin’s Gulag or of Hitler’s concentration camps and ignore the continuing brutality of the Laogai. If we want to bring an end to totalitarian rule in China, we must confront the Laogai.

Harry Wu is the founder and Executive Director of the Laogai Research Foundation, which compiles information on the Chinese gulag and exposes other human-rights abuses in China.

Laogai Research Foundation
888 16th Street, NW Suite 5310
Washington DC 20006.
Tel: +1 202 508 8215,
Fax: +1 202 955 5486
E-mail: laogai@laogai.org
Web: www.laogai.org

Harry Wu

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