The American Legion Magazine, April 2006                              
SIRS Knowledge Source, January 2007
By Alan W. Dowd 

After Mao Tse-tung established the People’s Republic of China in 1949, he created a network of slave labor camps to maintain control over his subjects. The camps were called laogai based on a Chinese acronym for the phrase “reform through labor.”  

Even though Mao died decades ago, the laogai camps remain an integral part of Beijing’s tyranny. In fact, The Economist magazine concluded that by the mid-1990s, at least 1,164 laogai camps dotted China’s vast territory. Today, an estimated 4-6 million people are rotting away in the laogai camps, serving out varying years and degrees of involuntary penance to the state Mao erected. Laogai prisoners produce everything from bottled water and tea to electronics and engine parts. Given the religious reasons for many laogai sentences, it is a sickening irony that some camps even produce rosaries, Christmas lights and toys—all for export to the West.  

Most of what the West knows about the laogai camps is due to the work of Harry Wu, a humble human-rights activist who survived the laogai and refuses to be called a hero. “I am a survivor,” he says plaintively, “not a hero.” As a graduate student studying geology in China, Wu made the mistake of criticizing the communist regime in 1960. He was then sentenced to the laogai, where he would spend the next two decades of his life.  

Upon his release, Wu won a ticket out of China when a visiting American professor  invited him to lecture at the University of California. The PRC, wanting to get rid of the troublesome Wu, agreed to the request. It would be a fateful decision—for Beijing and for Wu—because only from outside the PRC could Wu tell his story and expose China’s gulags to the light.  

As the laogai became known in the West, so did Wu. By 1992, after stints at Berkeley and the Hoover Institution, Wu would launch the Laogai Research Foundation (LRF), which is committed to educating the world about the laogai system. Under Wu’s leadership, LRF has won legislative victories on Capitol Hill, raised awareness across the American Heartland, and cobbled together a disparate coalition of laogai opponents, including human-rights activists, labor groups, old-fashioned anti-communists and trade hawks.  

Nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001, 2003 and 2004, Harry Wu has even changed our language: After years of prodding by Wu and his LRF, the Oxford English Dictionary officially included laogai in its 2003 edition. 

Alan W. Dowd: What does the laogai system mean to the communist government? 

Harry Wu: If you want to maintain a tyrannical regime, you must have a mechanism to keep people quiet, to remove the opposition and instill fear in the people. Just as Stalin had the gulags and Hitler had the concentration camps, the Chinese Communist Party has its own system for control—laogai.  

Loagai is derived from two Chinese letters—lao means labor; gai means reform. Hence, “reform through labor.” According to Chinese government policy, whatever your crime—penal or political—you are subject to reform through labor. They call this “reeducation through the labor system.” So by sentencing people to five or ten years in the prison system, they intend not only to punish but also to brainwash. The government does not want you to continue to hold a political view that deviates. You cannot keep your religious views. They intend to convert you to what they call a “New Socialist Person.” They aim to reprogram your brain. 

The government wants to see two different products from the laogai prison camps: 1) a reformed person; 2) products that can be sold on the international market. Both are a benefit to the regime. 

AWD: Could you discuss some of your experiences in the two decades you spent in laogai

WU: When I was sent to the labor camp, I could not continue my religious life. I am a Catholic. Nor could I continue with my political views, to complain to or about the communist government. All I could do was engage in labor—hard labor. Sometimes it was manual labor, sometimes in a coal mine, sometimes in a chemical factory, sometimes a steel factory, sometimes on a farm. And every prisoner had a quota. You couldn’t say “I don’t want to do it.” You had to complete your daily quota. Otherwise, the police guards would tell you, “Good labor, good food…less labor, less food…no labor, no food.” 

If your labor performance was good, your sentence might be reduced. If it was bad, it would be extended. And of course, they recorded your political performance: They would ask “Have you given up your political or religious views? Do you uphold communism?” 

So, in this environment, there are no heroes. No heroes can survive the Chinese laogai camps. I am not a hero, not at all. I am a survivor. How did I survive? I reduced myself from a human being into a beast. If you behave like a man in laogai, if you fight for your freedom and dignity, you will not survive. You don’t think about morality or freedom; you just think about surviving. Laogai forces you to become a beast. 

I’m lucky, because not only did I survive that hell, but I came to a free country and became a free man again. 

AWD: Could you discuss some of your visits back to the PRC since your release? 

WU: I have been back a few times for research. I had three very successful trips. On another trip, the Chinese stopped me at the border and sent me back. And on my last trip in 1995, the authorities caught me at the border, arrested me, accused me of stealing state secrets and sentenced me to 15 years in laogai. Fortunately, by that time, I had American citizenship.  

Even so, I was in detention for 66 days before they finally deported me. If I return, however, I will be forced to serve out my sentence. 

AWD: Could you talk about the significance of the word “laogai” being added to the Oxford English Dictionary

WU: Gulag is a famous word today. It is not an English word, of course. The word “gulag” represented Stalin’s political violence and the Soviet labor-camp system. Before 1974, you didn’t know the word gulag in America. But then Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn published The Gulag Archipelago. And today, “gulag” is in every dictionary.  

In 1993, I told people that my goal was to see laogai become recognized in every language, like gulag. Finally, in 2003, laogai was added to the Oxford Dictionary. It is also in the German dictionary—Duden. And I am sure it will expand to dictionaries of other languages as well.  

This is a historically significant recognition. We tell people that China is changing, and it has a huge labor market. Yet this totalitarian regime has a system similar to the gulags—its name is laogai. And now the world knows about it. That’s why I tell people today, “Now I can go to the grave in peace. My mission is done.” 

AWD: What can average Americans do to undermine this latter-day gulag system? Is the ultimate goal to end the regime itself? Would the current regime ever give up laogai

WU: The average American needs to tell the media, their congressman and senators, and the president that we have to put human rights and democracy on the table with the Chinese government. We should not only want to see their economy improve, but also their human rights and freedom.  

Laogai and freedom and democracy are incompatible. To maintain the totalitarian regime, you need something like laogai. If China becomes a democratic country, it will not need this sort of suppression mechanism. The people will be allowed to disagree with the government and share their views.   

I remember when Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an “Evil Empire.” Stalin was gone by then. The Gulag Archipelago had been published years earlier. And the story Solzhenitsyn wrote was about the 1940s and 1950s. Yet the gulag system was still there when Reagan said that. And it was important for him to call the system evil.  

We not only want to see the improvement of the economic system in China; we want to see democracy and the improvement of human rights. Capitalism doesn’t mean democracy. 

AWD: Laogai means reform through labor, and we often hear in America that China can be reformed through trade. Is that true? 

WU: That is a very interesting way to fashion this idea of reform.  

I would ask those who advocate trade with China, “Do you think that during the Cold War we could have reformed the Soviet Union and the gulag system? Could we have reformed the Nazis and the concentration camps?”  

It is impossible, but they think the communists in China can be reformed. They say the new communist leader is very different. They say if we engage them with money and technology and trade, we will promote democracy. But we didn’t have that standard during the Cold War. We did not engage the Evil Empire with money or trade or technology. This was not only for moral reasons but also for political reasons. And even today, we don’t engage with Cuba and North Korea. Why is China different? 

We cannot convince a tiger to become vegetarian.