Before and After the Decision on the Laojiao Issue

Before and After the Decision on the Laojiao Issue

Yan Lebin

Laogai Research Foundation’s Note: As far as we know, Mr. Yan Lebin is a veteran in the business of setting up the Laojiao regime in China. Therefore, his article is very valuable. It is noteworthy that according to his statistics, the number of Laojiao inmates reached as high as 9 million. This is just the base number and the actual number is even higher. Why? First, the numbers for the first two batches of Laojiao inmates are relatively accurate.  But the Laojiao inmates arrested in the early 1960s didn’t meet the requirements for Laojiao, and most of them were refugees from the great famine for the sake of seeking food and livelihood. According to the provisions then, these persons might not be sent to Laojiao. The most noteworthy point in the article is to point out that at the very beginning, Laojiao fell within the jurisdiction of the province-level government. After 1958, however, many counties set up their own Laojiao camps. We have to ask: given the fact that only Laojiao inmates numbered as high as 9 million, what about the number of Laogai (and prison) inmates? According to the conservative estimates of Laogai Research Foundation, for the last 6 decades, the number of Laogai (and prison) inmates was as high as 40 to 50 million. Subtracting the number of Laojiao inmates, we still have about 30 to 40 million of Laogai (and prison) inmates. This is part of the history of the Communist rule. No matter how the Chinese Communist Party claims to have adopted a policy of reform and opening up, these basic historical facts need to be clarified.

[Editor’s note: on August 25, 1955, the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party issued the Notice concerning Thoroughly Abolishing Hidden Anti-Revolutionary Elements, explicitly pointing out that “for the anti-revolutionaries and other bad elements which were rooted out during this campaign”, one of the methods for handling them is “reeducation through labor, whereby a sentence is not to be handed out to one, but despite not being fully deprived of freedom, he/she shall be assembled together and work for the nation and receive certain wages from the nation.” “Each province and municipality shall make preparations on its own and set up this kind of place for reeducation through labor. The national place for reeducation through labor shall be prepared for establishment immediately by the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Public Security. ” Subsequently, the first batch of facilities for reeducation through labor were set up in Yunan and Sichuan. In January 1956, the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party further issued the Instructions to Each Province and Municipality regarding the Immediate Preparations for Establishing the Institutions for Reeducation through Labor, requesting that “each province and municipality shall immediately begin to make preparations for setting up an institution of significant scale for reeducation through labor on a trial basis“. Subsequently, all provinces and municipalities began to implement the central instructions successively. For example, the government of Hunan Province established in February 1956 Taojiawan Center for Reeducation through Labor, beginning to accommodate and discipline the first batch of people to be reeducated through labor. At the Qingdao meeting on July 18, 1957, Mao Zedong to proposed “send the rightists (except for a small number of famous people) to reeducation through labor,” and further proposed to come up with rules for reeducation through labor.” On August 3 of the same year, The State Council published the Decision regarding Reeducation through Labor. The author of this article participated in the drafting of this decision.]

From November 1954 to December 1957, and from June 1980 to March 1983, I worked at the Eighth Department of the Bureau for Reeducation through Labor of the Ministry of Public Security and the Bureau for Reeducation through Labor of the Ministry of Public Security, respectively, thus taking charge of the work related to reeducation through labor twice. From November 1954 to July 1957, the Bureau for Reeducation through Labor had no institution responsible for the affairs on reeducation through labor. At that time, the main tasks of the Eighth Department of the Bureau for Reeducation through Labor included businesses related to the management and education, livelihood and health, and welfare and benefits for the persons who remained employed at the prisons after the expiration of their sentence term. After the 78th meeting of the Standing Committee of the First National People’s Congress on August 1, 1957 passed the State Council’s Decision regarding Reeducation through Labor, the Eighth Department of the Bureau for Reeducation through Labor added the business of reeducation through labor to its portfolio. Before that, neither the Ministry of Public Security nor its Bureau for Reeducation through Labor had set up working institutions for reeducation through labor or conducted any such business.

In July 1957, the Ministry of Public Security and the Ministry of the Interior  conducted joint consultations and research, and convened a national meeting on the issue of custody and reeducation through labor at the West Shuanmazhuang Guesthouse of the Ministry of Public Security at Xidan in Beijing “for the purpose of reforming the idlers, the lawless and the triflers with the capacity to labor into new men living on their own labor, and for the purpose of further maintaining public order and benefitting the socialist construction.“ At the start, vice minister Zhou Xing of the Ministry of Public Security and vice minister Chen Qiyuan of the Ministry of the Interior attended the meeting, and He Yiling, chief of the Eighth Department of the Bureau for Reeducation through Labor of the Ministry of Public Security, and I had been present at the meeting from the beginning to the end. At the meeting, vice ministers Zhou and Chen conveyed the instructions from the higher level and made their own speeches. They also broadcast the recorded speech of Liu Shaoqi at one meeting of the standing committee of the National People’s Congress on “why to have reeducation through labor?” The recorded speech set out some rules for the scope of custody and reeducation through labor. The meeting lasted six days. After the meeting, the two ministries made a joint report to the State Council on the issue of custody and reeducation through labor. I participated in the drafting of the report as well as the drafting of the Decision regarding Reeducation through Labor along with a comrade from the research desk of the general office of the Ministry of Public Security. Not before long, the Bureau of the Legislative Affairs of the General Office of the State Council examined and passed the draft and submitted its application to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress in the name of the State Council. On August 1, 1957, the 78th meeting of the Standing Committee of the First National People’s Congress approved the State Council’s Decision regarding Reeducation through Labor. The Decision places under custody and reeducation through labor the following several categories of people:

1.    The triflers, persons who have roguish behavior or stealing or fraudulent acts not subject to criminal prosecution, and those who infringe upon the public security management and don’t correct their actions after repeated instructions;

2.    Anti-Revolutionary and Anti-Socialist elements with minor misconduct and not subject to criminal prosecution, and those persons who are dismissed from such units as government office, social organizations, enterprises and schools and who have no means of livelihood;

3.    Those persons at a government office, social organization, enterprise or school who have the capability to work but refuse to work for a long time or those who sabotage discipline, hinder public order and are dismissed without the means of livelihood;

4.    Those who don’t comply with the job placement, recruitment and career transfer arrangement or those who don’t follow the advice on productive labor and make trouble continually without sound reasons,  obstruct business and don’t correct their behavior after repeated instructions.

After the adoption of the Decision, the Ministry of Public Security placed the function of administering reeducation through labor at the Eighth Department of the Bureau for Reeducation through Labor. This department is not only responsible for the work of the management and education of the persons who remained employed at the labor camps after the expiration of their sentence term, but also for the setting of the places for reeducation through labor and the work related to the management and education, livelihood, welfare and benefits of the persons under reeducation through labor as well as the work related to the formulation of principles and policies in regard to the management and education of the personnel for reeducation through labor. Each province, autonomous region and directly administered municipality had its own management commission for reeducation through labor established by the departments of public security and civil affairs. By 1959, each locality also got the departments of labor and finance involved in the work of the management commission for reeducation through labor.

As for the nature of the reeducation through labor, the Decision explicitly stipulates that “it is both a mandatory administrative measure for the imposition of mandatory reeducation reform on the persons being reeducated through labor, and a method for job placement for them.” This “mandatory measure” directly determined the fate of millions of persons:

  1. Those who had not received a verdict during the movement for social repression of anti-revolutionaries and for internal purge and internal cleanup conducted from April 1955 to 1956 nationwide, who were not fit to continue to stay within and with whom there were no appropriate methods to deal would be sent to reeducation through labor;
  2. Some of those across the nation who were classified as rightists during the 1957 movement for rectification and anti-rightists and the 1958 supplemental movement for anti-rightists would be sent to reeducation through labor;
  3. For about two and a half decades from August 1957 to 1983, no less than 5 million people were placed under custody and reeducation through labor, including those treated in accordance with the scope of four instances for custody and to reeducation through labor as stipulated in the Decision, and those whose misconduct was not subject to criminal punishment during the various subsequent movements and in the various anti-revolutionary and criminal cases uncovered by the police and for whom worries about potential social harm persisted if they were released to the society;
  4. During the three campaigns of Strike Hard to severely punish criminal offenses conducted nationwide from August 1983 to January 1987, no less than 1 million people who were not subject to criminal prosecution were placed under custody and reeducation through labor.

According to this Decision, for “the persons that need to be reeducated through labor, the department of civil affairs or public security, or the affiliated governmental office, organization, enterprise or school, or the parent or guardian shall submit the application for approval by the people’s committee or its delegate authority at each province, autonomous region or directly administered municipality.” But in actual conduct, the department of civil affairs was just a nominal organ and the effective decision on reeducation through labor was made  by the department of public security. Up until the early 1980s, all the issues related to the management of the labor camps, institutional settings of the camps, personnel staffing, deployment of the guard force and budgetary expenditures were the sole responsibility of the department of public security. As for the provision that “the term shall be extended for one to two years for those who did not perform well or had sabotage activities during the reeducation through labor,” in actual implementation, the term extension could be two to three years. And the authority to approve such extension also belonged to the department of public security.

Here are some examples. In December 1982, my colleague, comrade Luo Siyang and I accompanied the vice minister of public security Hui Ping to Guizhou Province to examine and inspect the work of reform through labor and reeducation through labor. Luo and I worked at Zhongba Camp for Reform through Labor and Reeducation through Labor at Qingzhen County, Guizhou for more than 30 days. The persons at this camp told me about the situation of a female inmate surnamed Chen. She was at grade three class at the 2nd high school in Guiyang. She was dismissed from the school because she had had sexual intercourses with a male classmate for many times and was sent by the bureau of public security of Guiyang City to reeducation through labor for three years. She entered the Zhongba Camp in 1968 and had had sexual intercourses with male inmates for many times. Hence, her term was renewed twice for three years each time, which resulted in a total term of 9 years. Upon the release from reeducation through labor in 1977, she had a job placement at the camp. When I came to the camp for examination and inspection, she had already been more than 30 years old but was still single. I retrieved and read her files and talked to her, asking her why she had kept making the same mistake despite repeated teachings. Hadn’t she thought about her own future? At the beginning, she remained silent and seemed shameless with a careless attitude. Finally, she said that “my body has this need.” I thought that there should have been no such harsh measure against such a woman and wondered whether [the government] should have taken into account her physical conditions and given relevant physical treatment. Was it not too cruel to have had her reeducated through labor for 9 years and finally kept her “working” at the camp?

In August and September 1981, I, along with Guan Shuqing, a department chief at the Bureau for Reeducation through Labor of the Ministry of Public Security, and comrade Wang Aimin, went to Heilongjiang province to inspect the work of reeducation through labor. During the inspection of the camp for reeducation through labor at Jixian County of Jiamusi City, a female inmate surnamed Ye at that camp told us about her situation: she have been overly punished and nobody had bothered to intervene after repeated attempts at complaints. I retrieved and read her files and talked with her. She had been a staff member at a factory owned by the street committee at the Chengguan Town of Jixian County. She had been found to engage twice in adultery. Therefore she was dismissed from the factory and sentenced on charge of bad behavior to a three-year term of reeducation through labor at the bureau of public security of Jixian County. Afterwards, I suggested to the camp that they file complaints on her behalf. I’m not aware of the final outcome.

In the month of September, three of us finally came to the camp for reeducation through labor administered by the city and established by the Harbin Municipal Bureau of Public Security along the Songhua River. The camp reported to us the situation of an inmate surnamed Wang. I read carefully the files of this person. He had been a jobless person living in Nangang District of Harbin. Having been induced by others to participate in stealing components from a factory, he was arrested on criminal charges after the case had been discovered by the Harbin department of public security, and his case was sent by the public security department to the prosecutor for prosecution. As he was only an accomplice and had not shared the spoils, the prosecutor decided not to sue him with the court. However, the public security department believed him to be a recidivist. Even though the public security department claimed that he was a recidivist, there was no specific evidence of crime in his files. Finally he was sent to a three year term of reeducation through labor. During the period of reeducation through labor, he repeatedly filed complaints against his misgivings. Then on the charge of “making trouble without reason,” his term of reeducation through labor was renewed for two years. After we had left, we heard later on that this person filed his case with the prosecutor and the court and that his case was rectified.

There was a time when the establishment of institutions for reeducation through labor was very arbitrary. According to the provisions of Article 5 of the Decision, “the work of setting up the institution of reeducation through labor on the level of the province, autonomous region and directly administered municipality shall be jointly led and managed by the departments of civil affairs and public security.” But in actual implementation, since the conscientious push for class struggle in 1958, the institutions of reeducation through labor at most provinces and autonomous regions had once been expanded to the prefecture-city level, and even to the county level in some provinces. Some counties set up the management commission for reeducation through labor, sending to reeducation through labor those persons who allegedly “continuously committed petty crimes but no major ones” or who were believed by the mass to be bad persons. Even worse, without the approval of the county government or “its delegate authority”, communes under the county also illegally set up camps for reeducation through labor. Based upon the data provided to me by my colleague surnamed Sun which was the partial statistics collected by the general office of the Ministry of Public Security from 14 provinces all over China at the end of 1958, this type of illegal camps for reeducation through labor set up by communes had a total population of more than 3 million under forced custody.

As of now, this system of reeducation through labor which contradicts the principle of rule of law shall be entirely abolished.

The author is a retired official from the Ministry of Public Security

Source: Yanhuang Chunqiu, Issue 5, 2013


Laogai Research Foundation
The Laogai Research Foundation (LRF) was established in 1992 by Laogai survivor, Harry Wu, to gather information on and raise public awareness of the Laogai—China's extensive system of forced-labor prison camps. LRF also works to document and publicize other systemic human rights violations in China, including executions and the harvesting of organs from executed prisoners, the coercive enforcement of China's "one-child" population control policy, and Internet censorship and surveillance. LRF serves as an authoritative source for journalists, researchers, politicians, and other human rights organizations on human rights in China generally and the Laogai and forced labor in China specifically.
Harry Wu, Founder
Laogai Museum Front Desk

Harry Wu knows firsthand the atrocious conditions of the Laogai. In 1960, Wu was imprisoned at the age of 23 for criticizing the Communist Party, and subsequently spent 19 years toiling in the factories, mines, and fields of the Laogai.

He was released in 1979 and came to the US in 1985 with just $40 in his pocket. Since then, he has traveled back to China multiple times to further invesitgate Laogai camps and continue his call for human rights in China.

Wu founded the Laogai Research Foundation in 1992 to gather information on and raise public awareness of the Chinese Laogai.

LRF's mission is to document and expose the Laogai, China's vast and brutal system of forced labor prison camps, and to promote education, advocacy, and dialogue about China's human rights issues.
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Laogai Museum Front Desk

The Laogai Museum is the first museum in the U.S. to directly address human rights in China. It is the hope of the Laogai Research Foundation that the Laogai Museum will preserve the memory of the Laogai's countless victims and serve to educate the public about the atrocities committed by China's Communist regime. First founded in 2008 with the support of the Yahoo! Human rights Fund, the museum reopened in its present location in 2011, becoming a place for human rights victims and advocates to reach out to a larger audience.

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Due to the suppression of free speech within China, much of the material housed within the Laogai Archives is not available to researchers in mainland China. Thus, the Laogai Archives are in a unique position to support academics, journalists, students, and activists in freely conducting research on human rights in China.

  1. What is the Laogai?
    The Laogai is the People’s Republic of China’s prison system. The name of the system is derived from the Chinese expression, laodong gaizao (勞動改造) meaning “reform through labor”. Generally referred to as labor reform camps (勞改隊), the prison system’s structure was developed by the Chinese Communist Party under Mao Zedong. Modeled on the Soviet Gulag, the prison forces prisoners to do hard labor and gives them “political reeducation” to reform their thoughts and behaviors. The PRC also uses the Laogai as a source of free labor for various work, from infrastructure construction and mining, to farming and manufacturing. Through a variety of prison enterprises, the Chinese government earns income off the backs of Laogai prisoners.
    The Chinese definition of the Laogai entails six components.
      “Reform through labor camps or brigades” house officially convicted and sentenced criminals.

      In 1994, the Chinese government stopped using the word of “laogai,” instead it restored the traditional name of jianyu (prison). But the nature of the laogai system as a tool of rerpression remains the same.

      “Reeducation through labor facilities” house prisoners under “administrative discipline,” meaning that they may be sentenced to up to three years of forced labor without ever having been charged or tried.

      Detention centers house prisoners who are awaiting trial or have gone through a trial but the sentenced prison term is less than one year. They too can be forced to labor.

      Juvenile offender facilities house adolescent convicts or reeducation through labor detainees. In 1983, a regulation was issued that decreased the age from 16 to 14 years old at which children can be sent to reeducation through labor camps.

      These facilities were for prisoners who had served out their sentences but were deemed “not completely reformed.” Such prisoners had to stay in the same prison facility, facing the same conditions, and performing the same work just as when they were formal prisoners. The CCP ceased the forced job placement system in the early 1980s.
  2. How is the Laogai different from other prison systems?

    Because of international attention to human rights violations in the Laogai in the early 1990s, the Chinese Communist Party has attempted to create the impression that the Laogai is only a prison system for detaining, punishing, and reforming criminals. It was for this reason that in 1994, the CCP ordered that Laogai, meaning “reform through labor,” no longer be used in government documents. Instead, the system’s institutions were to be called jianyu, “prison.” However, contrary to CCP propaganda, the Laogai is different from prison systems in other countries. Laogai inmates are forced to labor and forced to do brain wash. What is more, they are unprotected by law, including laws against torture and abuse, as can be seen in the following section “Difference in Conditions.” The Laogai system also strengthens the CCP’S control by suppressing dissent among the Chinese people. The Laogai is an integral part of China’s economy, providing an abundance of free labor for manufacturing goods sold in both domestic and international markets.
    The conditions that persist in the Laogai constitute an additional distinction between it and other prison systems, with the Laogai perpetuating many of China’s most serious human rights abuses.

  3. Who has suffered in the Laogai?
  4. What is the political function of the Laogai system?
    Besides punishing criminals, the Laogai serves as a tool of political repression. China sentences outspoken critics of CCP policy to imprisonment in the Laogai to quell dissent. Suspects punishable by means of laogai or prison terms include the previous “anti-revolutionaries” and present-day “endangering state security” according to the Criminal Law. Suspects punishable by means of Re-education Through Labor according to the CCP’S “Measures for Reeducation through Labor (1957)” include, “counterrevolutionary and anti-socialist reactionaries, whose crimes are minor and not subject to criminal prosecution, and who have been dismissed by government offices, organizations, and enterprises, educational institutions or other units and have no way to make a living.”
    Fear and submission to CCP rule are also perpetuated by recurring “strike hard” campaigns. During these campaigns Chinese authorities implement various penalties, public trials, and previously, public executions, to intimidate its citizens and clamp down on political “crimes”. Trials and sentencing occur rapidly, and those accused of a crime are deemed guilty even before trial. It is under these circumstances that the CCP has continually silenced dissidents.
  5. What is the economic significance of the Laogai?
    Besides being important to China’s communist regime as a tool of repression, the Laogai is also an integral part of China’s economy. Chinese authorities use the millions locked in the Laogai as free labor. Totaling an estimated three to five million, they make up the world’s largest forced labor population. The CCP seeks to use the Laogai for profit.
    Forced labor is seen as another input for economic output. The deliberate application of forced labor by the Chinese government is codified in the Ministry of Justice Criminal Reform Handbook: “Laogai facilities…organize criminals in labor and production, thus creating wealth for society. Our Laogai units are both facilities of dictatorship and special enterprise.” The CCP hopes that by being forced to labor in the Laogai, prisoners will be molded into “new socialist persons.”
  6. Are Laogai goods exported?
    While much of what is produced in the Laogai is consumed domestically, Laogai-made goods also filter into foreign markets by way of third-party trading companies. Recently, rather than attempting to do business directly with foreign companies, Laogai prisons will find a government-owned trading company to act as a middleman and conceal the forced-labor origins of products from importers. Many Laogai prisons also have a second enterprise name; for example, Jinzhou Prison, where Nobel Laureate and democracy activist Liu Xiaobo is believed to be held, also operates under the name “Jinzhou Xinsheng Switch, Co.”, which it uses to market its products to foreign companies over the internet. LRF has evidence that shows Laogai goods repeatedly find their way onto American shelves, despite laws forbidding their importation. Notwithstanding the Chinese government’s claims to the contrary, the CCP encourages exporting Laogai goods.
  7. What is existing U.S. law regarding the importation of Laogai goods?
    Importing forced-labor goods to the U.S. is illegal according to section 1307 of the Tariff Act of 1930. In 1992, the need to confront China about this problem led to the signing of the “Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) Between the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China on Prohibiting Import and Export Trade in Prison Labor Products.” However, China still exports prison labor goods to the U.S. To promote compliance with MOU’s terms, in 1994, the U.S. and China negotiated another agreement: the “Statement of Cooperation on the 1992 MOU between the U.S. and the PRC on Prohibiting Import and Export Trade in Prison Labor Products” (SOC). The SOC defines a mechanism to ensure that China promptly cooperates with U.S. Customs on forced labor inquiries. However, China has done nothing to ensure compliance, and the U.S. never committed resources to enforce the agreement. According to the 1997 “State Department Country Reports on Human Rights,” U.S. Customs unsuccessfully pursued eight standing visitation requests, seven of which dated back to 1995. In all cases, visitation requests were refused or ignored, and allegations were denied without explanation. Cooperation was judged as “inadequate.” In State Department reports from 1999, authorities admit that the MOU has been “nearly impossible” to enforce because China has been “uncooperative.” Throughout the 1990s, only around 20 cases of forced-labor product importation were pursued under the U.S. customs ban. Since 2000, the U.S. government has not attempted to restrict the flow of Laogai goods into the country.
  8. How can I avoid buying products made in the laogai?
    Identifying goods that are made entirely or in part in the Laogai is increasingly difficult. Sub-contracting and complicated global supply chains make discerning the origins of a product daunting. For example, a U.S. clothing maker may contact a Chinese import-export company to find a Chinese plant to cheaply make its clothing. That company may then contract the account to a legitimate Chinese textile firm, which will further sub-contract a portion of the production process to a Laogai camp, where prisoners must fill quotas to earn their food rations, rather than money. Laogai prisoners, toiling in horrible conditions, may also have grown the cotton the clothes are made from. If a product is “made in China” then it is possible it could have been produced in a Laogai.
  9. Should consumers boycott goods made in China?
  10. Are organs harvested from executed prisoners in the Laogai?
  11. What is the "One Child Policy"?
  12. Why do so few know about the Laogai?
  13. What does international law say about the Laogai?
  14. Who is Harry Wu?
  15. What is the Laogai Research Foundation?