The Indianapolis News
December 18, 1998
Alan W. Dowd

It’s Christmas time in the People’s Republic of China. While much of the world—even the non-Christian world— remembers this holiday by giving gifts and contemplating peace on Earth, troops from the PRC’s Public Security Bureau marked the beginning of the Christmas season by arresting leaders of China’s battered democracy movement.

The December 1 raids on Beijing’s democratic underground were just the latest in a series of government crackdowns on pro-democracy groups throughout China. In October, PRC troops descended on democracy activists and pamphleteers in south-central China, even as China’s UN ambassador was signing an international agreement promoting civil and political rights. The agreement called on all signatories to lift restrictions on religious activity and to allow unfettered political expression.

The ongoing assault on China’s democracy movement is indication that Beijing has no intention of observing this or any other treaty that would promote the most basic rights on mainland China. In fact, the dictators that control China intend to do the very opposite: Writers, students, critics of the state, religious leaders, and even reform-minded government officials are routinely arrested for ignoring Beijing’s decrees. Many thousands are ultimately sent away to forced-labor camps known as laogai.

The brutal laogai system was forged soon after Mao Tse-tung’s communist armies took over the mainland in 1949. Mao and his henchmen needed the labor camps to reform or otherwise remove anyone directly associated with the pre-communist state. The PRC admits that over 700,000 people were killed or starved in the ensuing purges. However, some Western estimates place the murder, starvation, and death toll as high as 100 million.

Mao used the laogai—which means reform through labor—primarily to break the spirit and will of those who resisted his revolution. "Laogai facilities," he inveighed, "are tools...for exercising dictatorship over a minority of hostile elements." He had not yet recognized how the camps could assist the revolution’s mammoth agriculture, production, and mining efforts. Soon, however, the revolution would tap China’s wealth of human capital for the most arbitrary of reasons. The laogai work camps, unknown outside China for decades to come, would quickly become a byword within Mao’s vast prison state. Anyone deemed hostile or deviant or threatening to state security could be sentenced to the camps, where he would be reformed or worked to death.

Thought control and economic growth are now the twin goals of the PRC, and laogai is the chief means of reaching those goals. As Mao envisioned, laogai remains a vital tool of the Communist Party’s power; however, it is doubtful that even he could have foreseen the breadth and depth of the modern laogai. This system of control is not intended solely for hardened criminals. As Mao observed, it never was. The forced-labor camps are for political dissenters and religious leaders who refuse to fall passively in line behind the revolution’s masters.

At least 1,164 laogai camps dot China’s vast territory, where perhaps 20 million people serve out varying years and degrees of involuntary penance to the state Mao erected. Camp populations range from small shops of 200 men to sprawling collective farms and mining facilities of 20,000 prisoners. In the laogai, China controls a workforce larger than Spain’s and nearly as large as that of France—a workforce that is paid nothing for its labor. As such, the modern laogai, unlike its ancestor, is a vital part of China’s roaring economy. The government’s explicit policy is to make all camps profitable enterprises, and human inputs are an essential part of this calculus. Hence, the economic importance of China’s crackdown on religion and political freedom.

A law passed by Congress in 1930 prohibits the importation of all goods manufactured by prison laborers. Of the 24 detention orders issued by US Customs under this law since 1991, 23 pertain to the PRC. Yet Beijing has skillfully evaded the efforts of the Customs Service to trace the source of Chinese exports by hiding laogai products within a labyrinth of front organizations.

In the case of a prison in Jieyang, for example, laogai goods are sent from the camp to an import-export corporation inside China, which then ships the goods to one of four factories or holding companies in Hong Kong. These companies then place the laundered products on the world market— products made not by working men and women, not even by hardened criminals who are paying off their debts to society, but by preachers, Bible-distributors, writers, activists, students, and people who want to be free.

It is in this thriving forced-labor system that we catch a glimpse of the ugly underside of free trade without conscience. This is where China’s labor camps affect us directly, and taint our own Christmas season. The camps produce everything from bottled water and tea to electronics and engine parts. Considering the religious reasons for many laogai sentences, it is a sobering irony that the camps also produce rosaries, winter apparel, Christmas lights, ornaments, and toys—all for export to the United States and other Western nations. Cunningly and sickeningly, the PRC uses the very tools of its repression to sate our economic appetites.

Laogai is as much a part of China as the Communist Party or the People’s Liberation Army. It is a system that will not go away quickly or quietly, and it may never go away if we pretend it doesn’t exist. If we can’t take notice of China’s labor camps and political repression during the rest of the year, Christmas seems the ideal time to open our eyes. For Christmas was not intended for the wealthy, the comfortable, or the powerful. It’s for the captive, the persecuted, the weak. If anyone fits those descriptions, it is the prisoners of laogai.