Insights into China's Reform-Through-Labor Program

July 1, 2005 Updated: July 1, 2005

The Chinese Government asserts that the criminal mind can only be transformed via participation in labor and hence has long implemented a system in China called, "Reform-through-labor." After reading the incidents cited below, one could not help but wonder whether they are actually reforming the minds of criminals or simply practicing slave labor.

In the deep mountains of western Sichuan province, 15,000 prisoners who violated the laws stipulated by the Chinese Communist Party were forced to mine coal under the government's reform-through-labor program. Coal mining is notoriously known for its high risks yet prisoners engaging in such activities do not receive any protection whatsoever. Their only insurance is the right to pray to Avalokitesvara (Guan Yin) before going into the well each day. As a result, countless prisoners have died in this program and their relatives have been left with nothing. The most they could get from the government is money for a coffin.

The labor camp is divided into several jail areas, commonly known as production brigades. From coal mining, brick firing to electricity generating, cheap labor and low production costs allow the reform-through-labor enterprise to prosper. Coals from private operations cost 400 yuan (US$48.33) per ton while the ones mined by prisoners are only 300 yuan (36.25) per ton; private brick firing factory charge 0.1 yuan per brick whilst the ones fired by prisoners only cost 0.07 yuan each.

The owner of a neighboring company said that the abnormally low prices set by the reform-through-labor program drastically disrupted the local coal market. He goes on to explain that the program's cheap labor, plus a series of governmental subsidies and tax exemptions, creates a superiority with which no private company could compete. As a result, many companies have gone out of business. Anyone who has seen the hazardous conditions these prisoners work in should have the sense not to purchase such inexpensive labor products.

Prisoners in the reform-through-labor program were only given two meals each day while forced to work ten hours. They work every single day of the year and paralyze or perish along with well cave-ins.

People who have finished their terms in a coal mining labor camp revealed to the public that at least 400 people out of 150,000 die each year from coal mining. The Chinese government has even granted permission for 100 natural fatalities to occur in the labor camp. Throughout the years, countless prisoners die in fatal accidents yet the labor program need only report the casualties to the Sichuan Province Prison Administrative Bureau with no further responsibilities.

According to the prisoners from the labor camp, "If one day the sky was to collapse on the labor camp; the government would act as if nothing had happened. They will do anything to hide the truth from the prisoners and the public." Life has no value in these labor camps. Only the Chinese government can provide the exact number of casualties caused by high-risk labor.

The Chinese government has never attempted to improve the harsh conditions of the labor camps- intense physical labor, limited meals and inhalation of large amounts of coal ashes. Prisoners who have fortunately walked out of the labor camps alive have had more or less life-lasting scares. Yet they exclaimed, "We are fortunate enough not to have lost our lives! Losing a leg or an arm is considered lucky! Damaged livers and wounded lungs is no big deal!" Being able to climb out of a well alive and survive a labor camp is considered a great "blessing" from the government.