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Lao Gai: the Chinese Gulag

By Ruth Walker. Ruth Walker is associate editor of the Monitor. / February 15, 1995



IT took a while, but the international community -- the group of outward-looking citizens around the globe who want to see their fellow-beings with at least some of the same liberties that they themselves enjoy -- finally learned to say ''apartheid.'' They learned to say ''intifadah.''

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Now there is a new term: lao gai. It means ''reform through labor'' in Chinese. In China, ''lao gai units'' are forced labor camps.

''Prison labor'' is the term that China and the United States Department of State use to describe the inmates of such establishments. It evokes, if not the proud tradition of Western trade unionism, at least fairly benign images of men in stripes making auto license plates, or maybe blue jeans.

''Forced labor'' is the term the Laogai Research Foundation, based in Washington, uses. ''Gulag'' is another term it uses, to remind traders and would-be traders with China just why some of those goods come so cheap -- because they are produced by workers deemed as expendable as paper towels.

Hongda Harry Wu, executive director of the Laogai Research Foundation and a nine-year veteran of forced labor in a coal mine, has a photo of a hide-factory worker standing naked in a vat of chemicals.

Lao gai is, of course, a trade issue: Western manufacturers are right to be concerned that their products won't compete on price with Chinese prison-made goods. Lao gai is a labor issue too: The foundation has identified at least one American firm that laid off its own workers when it found it could buy from a Chinese labor camp rather than manufacture goods itself.

But lao gai is overwhelmingly a human rights issue. Because the Chinese gulag is a more effective producer of export goods than its Soviet counterpart ever was, more outside merchants have entangled themselves in this dirty trade, not only buying goods but selling capital equipment, than would be the case otherwise. But the trade link also presumably could provide outsiders with at least some leverage in controlling the abuses.

China admits to having 1.2 million people in prison, but the Laogai Research Foundation estimates the true total at nearly 10 million. Other estimates go as high as 20 million -- as big as the entire legitimate labor force of many countries.

One reason for the discrepancy is that not everyone in a prison camp counts; one can be thrown into prison for up to three years' ''education through labor'' without a trial. Some lao gai prisoners complete their nominal sentences but are deemed not ''reformed'' and so are kept on, given a half-salary and allowed out for family visits, but effectively still imprisoned.

China admits to 3,200 political prisoners, and Christians are notably well represented in the camps. Where is lao gai as an issue on the international agenda? Coming back rapidly, says Jeff Fiedler, a lawyer who works with the foundation. The US bans import of prison-made goods. Australia is considering similar legislation, he adds, as a result of Mr. Wu's lobbying efforts.

A United Nations resolution condemning Chinese human rights violations is expected this month.

The European Parliament passed a strong condemnation of China's human rights record last year, and has been generally raising politicians' consciousness on the issue.

Outside pressure can't come a moment too soon. China-watchers are bracing for what they see as an inevitable power struggle to succeed Deng Xiaoping, with an exacerbation of the prison situation.

How do individuals engage on this one? As citizens, they can heed the time-honored counsel of contacting their elected representatives. As consumers, they can't expect to find ''Made in Jail'' labels on goods for sale. But if an item is too well made for the price, they can act on their suspicions about its origin and simply decide not to buy.