China’s ‘Re-Education Through Labor’ System: A View From Within

(February 5, 2013)  In 1987, when Taiwanese President Chiang hing-kuo finally lifted martial law after nearly forty years, Taiwan’s Government Information held its first Taipei International Book Exhibition. The exhibition, which in 1987 gathered 67 publishers from eleven countries, has grown immensely since, attracting 420 international publishers from 60 different countries in 2012.

The exhibition—the “first formal diplomatic event held by the publishing industry in Taiwan”—is a symbol of liberalization and democratization of Taiwan, and its commitment to freedom of speech. Because of strict censorship in the People’s Republic of China, many Mainland activists publish their work in Hong Kong and Taiwan, which guarantee freedom of the press. Among them is Harry Wu, a 75-year-old Chinese human rights activist who spent 19 years in so-called “re-education through labor,” or laogai, a Chinese labor camp system originally modelled after the Soviet Gulag. Wu has written extensively about the laogai system, combining first-hand accounts with extensive research.

Laogai is distinguished from laojiao in that the former is a prison used to detain individuals convicted under the Chinese Criminal Code, whereas the latter is used to detain those who have only committed minor offenses and thus are viewed by the government as being easy to reform. Detention at laojiao may last up to three years and does not require a judicial procedure; at laogai, one can be sentenced to life, though only after a trial.  Both systems aim to “re-educate” the detainees through penal labor.

In a discussion panel at National Taiwan University, Wu recounted his experience in the laogai camps and emphasized that this system still exists today. In 1994, 45 years after the system’s establishment in 1949, the Chinese government officially abolished the term laogai, only to rename it jianyu, or prison. “Henceforth, the word ‘laogai’ will no longer exist, but the function, character and tasks of our prison administration will remain unchanged,” announced the government in 1995, betraying any hope for actual reform. According to Wu’s research, there are six to eight million inmates working in such prison camps today.

Nineteen years of incarceration

“My father was a right-wing banking official; we were well off. In 1949 the Communist Revolution began, and we lost all our property. My mother committed suicide,” said Wu. “I spent nineteen years in laogai because I expressed my opinions.”

It was in 1957, a year after the Communist Party began the Hundred Flowers Campaign, which encouraged its citizens to voice their true opinions on politics and society, that Wu was sentenced to life. He was just 21 years old, studying at the Geology Institute in Beijing.

“I was released in 1979, and in 1985, I went to the U.S.,” Wu continued. “I was free. A free man. In a free society… You can’t imagine what that feels like—you’ve never been not free.”

Life in the camps

Wu responded with vivid detail to a student’s question asking him to depict life in the laogai camps. “Every morning we would all get up and line up, with the guards at the camp pointing guns at us. They would divide us up into groups and assign us to plots of land. Within that plot of land we would pick grapes, tealeaves, cotton, and other things. We couldn’t go beyond our assigned space—there was an invisible line. Cross that line, and you’re shot.

“Every worker had a labor quota he had to fulfil. We would pack a cardboard box with grapes and weigh it to make sure we’d fulfilled the quota. They would take the box and load it onto a plane, which flew out to Japan. Once, one of the workers became sick for three days and did not meet his quota. At the end of the day, when they lined us up and called our names, that guy was called to the front. ‘You didn’t meet your quota! You disobeyed Chairman Mao! You neglected your duty!’ The troop leader at the camp yelled at him. They tied the guy’s hands behind his back and onto a bamboo stick. They ripped his shirt off, exposing his chest bare.

“The leader continued to yell at him. After a while, they released the guy, and he fell tumbling into a ditch, tearing at his arms, chest, and face. His skin was covered by countless mosquito bites. ‘What, I didn’t hit you,’ said the leader. To this day, I can still hear him screaming in pain.”

Factory or prison?

Wu said that laogai camps are full of such “tricks” that allow not only leaders at individual camps but also the Chinese government to circumvent the rules and cover up the inhumanity of the system. For example, most laogai camps carry two names: a commercial name for outside trade and an official administrative name. “Camps might outwardly be called ‘XX Farm,’ ‘XX Brick Factory,’ or ‘XX Mining Factory.’ For example, there was one whose commercial name was ‘Yunnan Province Jinma Diesel Engine Plant.’ But its administrative name was ‘Yunnan Province Prison No. 1.’ In the end, they were all actually prisons.”

Laogai provides free labor—it’s a huge business,” Wu explained. “I’ve asked Americans who do business with Chinese companies before: Do you know about laogai? Do you know how the goods are produced? Do you want to do business with people reap the benefits of laogai? But they don’t know.”

According to the Laogai Research Foundation, a non-profit organization that Wu established in 1992 to research and promote public awareness about laogai, “The Chinese government profits handsomely from the labor camp system by allowing goods made with forced labor to enter both domestic and international markets…Due to intentional deception on the part of laogai enterprises, lax international labelling requirements for manufactured goods, and the fact that many laogai products are traded via middlemen, it is extremely difficult to trace the origins of laogai products once they have entered the market.”

Government pressure—anywhere, any time

The discussion eventually shifted to Wu’s life as a “free man” in the US. When he arrived in the US in 1985, six years after his release from laogai, he had US$40 to his name. After three years of working odd jobs such as selling liquor and donuts, Wu began researching as a visiting professor at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution in 1988, compiling personal accounts and detailed evidence on the laogai system. In 1992, he founded the Laogai Research Foundation in Washington, DC.

One student asked whether the Chinese government interferes with the Foundation’s activities. Wu answered, “There’s a department called Ministry of State Security Number 326 that deals with people deemed politically dangerous like me. At the Foundation, we receive blackmail threats and strange phone calls; our email system often goes down, too. Sometimes I find my car’s tires are flat. It’s much better in the U.S., though—it does a better job keeping these types of activities in check. Whenever these things happen, I just call the FBI.

“I’m a U.S. citizen now. But when I went to China in 1995 to gather more information about the laogai system, I was arrested and detained, although I had proper documentation. They sentenced me to 15 years in prison.

“Then something strange happened,” continued Wu. “I was supposed to serve 15 years, then be deported. But—the Chinese officials told me they can deport me first.” This was a compromise on the part of the Chinese government. Wu’s detention led to an international campaign demanding his release. Former Capitol Hill Senator Jesse Helms, Wu’s friend and supporter, wrote in a letter to a letter to then Secretary of State Warren Christopher: “Should harm come to Harry Wu while he is in Chinese custody, there will be severe implications for China in the United States Congress.”  After 66 days of detention, Wu flew back to the U.S.

“In total, I am sentenced to 34 years in prison. For what? I don’t know. I didn’t rob a bank, I didn’t shoot anyone, I didn’t rape anyone. Why the 34 years? No one knows.”

 (This article also appears in The Atlantic, a Tea Leaf Nation partner site.)



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.

The Laogai Research Foundation
1734 20th Street, Northwest
Washington, DC 20009

We are two blocks north of Dupont Circle Metro's North Exit on the Red Line (corner of 20th and S Streets).

Free 2-hour and metered street parking is available throughout the neighborhood.

Hours of Operation

Monday – Friday 10:00 AM – 06:00 PM
Saturday 10:00 AM – 05:00 PM

(202) 730-9308


The Laogai Archives are in the offices of the Laogai Research Foundation in Washington, DC.

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?