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Book Review: Laogai – The Chinese Gulog

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Laogai—The Chinese Gulag
by Hongda Harry Wu (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, Inc., 1992); 247 pages; $34.95.

The world has marveled for over ten years at the economic progress in communist China. The collective farms were transformed into private family enterprises. The Communist Party declared that “to be rich is glorious,” and thus permitted the emergence of private and cooperative enterprises. Foreign companies entered into joint ventures with state and private Chinese enterprises, and the economy began to boom.

But beneath this external appearance of liberalization and moderation is the totalitarian state, a state that still dominates the economy, imposes censorship and thought control, and denies fundamental political and civil liberties. The true nature of the Chinese communist system showed its face to the world in June 1989, when pictures were transmitted around the globe of the brutal suppression of the students demonstrating for “democracy” in Tiananmen Square in the center of Peking. Thousands of young Chinese were killed and wounded on live television. Thousands more were arrested for counter-revolutionary activities and sent to prisons and labor camps.

In the September-October 1992 issue of The Sciences, Chinese physicist and human-rights advocate, Fang Li Zhi, detailed the conditions in some of these prisons: “At Lingyuan all but the most aged and infirm prisoners are made to do heavy work for fourteen hours a day. If one does not complete an assignment or fails to show enough enthusiasm in the mandatory political study sessions-in which inmates mr, inundated with Communist dogma-one is beaten by guards wielding electrified batons and leather belts…. Typically more than forty inmates at Lingyuan are crammed into a 215-square-foot cell and denied medical care. Me daily prison diet, if me calls it that, is vegetable soup and a steamed bun made of corn flour. And there is little food for the mind, aside from the daily barrage of party doctrine: the men are forbidden to keep any reading or writing materials. And if that is not enough, the warden has evidently encouraged the hardened criminal offenders to harass the political activists.”

The treatment meted out to these young Chinese dissidents is not new or unique. It has been an integral part of the Chinese Communist system of power both before and after the Communist Party conquered the Chinese mainland in 1949. “Towards enemies,” declared Mao Tse-tung, “the people’s democratic dictatorship uses the method of dictatorship.. [that] compels them to labor, and, through, such labor, be transformed into new men.”

Hongda Harry Wu’s Laogai-The Chinese Gulag is a detailed account of the Chinese communist prison system, a system that has had two functions: to “reeducate” those imprisoned into new socialist men and to provide the state with cheap labor for industrial production and development.

Professor Wu explains that the system of Labor Reform Camps (Laogaidui) am divided into three categories: Convicted Labor Camps (Laogai) which form the essential core of the system; Reeducation Through Labor Camps (Laojiao), to which are sent those who have committed lesser offenses; and Forced Labor Placement (jiuye), requiring those who have formally finished their sentences to reside in or near the prison in which they served their term and to continue to work for that prison.

The reeducation and socialist indoctrination process follows a series of stages upon the arrival of the prisoner in the camp. First, he writes a biography and confession of his crimes against the people, a confession on which he is continually cross-examined; second, he recognizes and admits the nature of his counterrevolutionary conduct as a “class enemy,” and criticizes his past conduct; third, he submits completely to Party and prison authority to demonstrate his subservience to “the people”; fourth, he proves his loyalty to the Party by spying and informing on other inmates in the prison; fifth, the prisoner acquires redemption-new class consciousness-through hard labor during his term as a convict.

The fifth stage of prisoner reeducation is an essential element in the functioning of the socialist economy. For example, the Peking No. I Prison is also the Peking Plastic Factory; and the Shansi Province No. 2 Prison is also the Fenhe Automotive Factory. “Basically speaking,” Professor Wu explains, “the basis of labor reform enterprise production is low-wage, slave-like labor…. The basic purpose of forcing criminals to engage in hard labor is to produce wealth for socialist society.”

The latter part of Professor Wu’s books is a systematic study of the types of forced labor and production activities that have been expanded and developed in the period of Deng Xiaoping’s reign in China. Many of these low-wage, slave-labor industrial endeavors have been the basis for cheap exports sold in the West, so the Chinese government could earn hard currency for the importation of modem Western technology and capital equipment.

At least fifty million people have been imprisoned in the Chinese Gulag during the past forty years, Professor Wu estimates, with at least 16-20 million still confined to the labor camps. And they are spread among four to six thousand labor camps distributed throughout all the provinces of China.

Thanks to Professor Wu, we now have a detailed view of an essential reality of socialism in Communist China.

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).