NEW YORK—“I was 27 years old when I went in and 50 years old when I was let out," the man on the video wept. "Those should be the best years of a person's life. And now my sons don't even know me,” he said as he turned from the camera to wipe his tears.
His was one of the testimonies in a short video-compilation of material from the new book, “Laogai: The Machinery of Repression in China.” Umbrage Editions, the publisher, had helped organize a speaking event at Columbia University to mark the volume's publication, and a modest but keen audience attended.
Four speakers shared their views on human rights in China, and each took an angle: law, labor camps, media, and Tibet. The overriding theme of the discussion was the laogai—the labor camp system in China.
Laogai means “reform through labor” in Chinese, and it has a long history, according to Andrew J. Nathan, Professor of political science at Columbia University, who moderated the discussion and wrote an introduction to the book. “You could say that the history goes back to the development of modern penology, modern law, and the modern prison system in China,” he said.
It wasn't until the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) seized power over 60 years ago that “labor reform” (laogai) was developed.
Communist China has a large and complicated system of labor camps, Nathan said. “Some are factories, some are farms. They mix together prisoners who have been committed there under the two separate punishments of labor form and labor reeducation.”
The laogai was huge under Mao Zedong, and it is still big. 3-5 million Chinese are currently detained in forced labor camps, and 40-50 million people have been jailed in labor camps since 1949.
A wide range of human rights violations occurs inside these labor camps, Nathan explained, distinct from what goes on in other prison systems around the world.
In the laogai, forced labor for export goods is prevalent and the living conditions are woeful. Some prisoners or conscience are also singled out for torture, sometimes in an effort to force them to recant their beliefs, as in the case of Falun Gong.
The labor camp system particularly targets political prisoners, Nathan said. This includes not only dissidents who stand up for democracy and criticize the system. Often it includes those who have exercised the rights that the CCP tells them that they have, to appeal, to expose corruption, to fight for their right to their land, and to go up against the local authorities because their land is being polluted by chemical run off.
“It’s the people who are persistent in going up against the local Party Secretary, the powerful factory owner. It’s ordinary peasants, ordinary workers, ordinary mothers, people who try to find out why their school fell down on their kids during the Sichuan earthquake,” Nathan said. “That kind of person also gets sent away as a troublemaker.”
Some of the population, including the “troublemakers” in the laogai system have not been through a trial, and “are just sent away to be disciplined by the police or security apparatus in their work unit or village.”
Nathan identified two reasons why the laogai system is still in operation today: that the Chinese security apparatus wields great power and influence; and that the CCP knows it lacks legitimacy. “The laogai is a tip-off to the bad conscience of the regime,” he said.