Cisco and the Machinery of Chinese Repression

Cisco and the Machinery of Chinese Repression

      Contrary to Cisco’s claim that they “strongly support free expression and open communication on the Internet,” the networking giant helped design and aggressively marketed arguably the most oppressive censorship tool in existence. More than just restricting access to information, technology Cisco created for the Chinese government has been used to track dissidents who were later tortured and imprisoned by authorities.

      Du Daobin, a prominent Chinese activist, understands the brutal effectiveness of Cisco’s creation, the so-called “Golden Shield.” In 2003, Chinese authorities arrested Du for posting pro-democracy articles online. Du was subsequently placed under house arrest for four years and then sent to prison for an additional three years. Authorities repeatedly tortured Du during his confinement. Without Cisco’s Golden Shield, the Chinese government would have lacked the ability to track and persecute Du.

      Du filed a lawsuit in US federal court against Cisco under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), a law that permits US courts to hear lawsuits alleging violations of a narrow list of universally recognized international laws. Actionable offenses under the ATS include aiding and abetting torture and prolonged arbitrary detention, both of which are allegations at issue in Du v. Cisco. Unfortunately, the US Supreme Court is considering limiting the jurisdictional reach of the statute, a move that would make it more difficult for victims of human rights abuses to obtain compensation for their suffering. In order to deter future misconduct and provide redress for Du and his family, the Court must uphold the ATS as means for victims to seek justice for atrocities perpetrated by US corporations in foreign countries.


       Who is Du Daobin?                                                                 Du Daobin Photo.jpg

       Du Daobin, the named plaintiff in Cisco, is a former Chinese government employee turned dissident writer. Originally a staunch communist, Du grew disillusioned with the Communist Party after witnessing the wanton massacre of civilians during the 1989 Tiananmen Square Protests. He channeled his newfound fervent desire for reform into writings critical of unjust Party policies. Hardly a radical, Du endured torture and prolonged arbitrary detention for daring to publicly address official corruption, growing inequalities, and restrictions on expression that fall far short of international standards.

      The cruel retribution inflicted on Du in response to his unwavering commitment to social justice has caused him immense harm. By the time of his release in 2010, he suffered from “extreme malnutrition and cardiac issues.” Now a destitute single father, Du nevertheless remains a champion of free expression and a tireless advocate for the disadvantaged. Although prevailing in the pending lawsuit would not undo past harms, a legal remedy would provide needed financial resources and the dignity of recognition. 


      Cisco and the Golden Shield

      More than a mere firewall, the “Golden Shield Project” is a sophisticated surveillance system that enables the government to censor specific search requests, monitor the activities of Internet users, and track dissidents offline. Establishing such extensive controls a decade ago in a country as vast and populous as China would have been unimaginable without assistance from a leading Western network equipment manufacturer. 

      Advanced technology developed by Cisco and the basic layout of China’s Internet infrastructure made the Golden Shield possible. The physical structure of Chinese cyberspace forces virtually all Internet contact between China and the outside world to flow through three chokepoints. Authorities use “tappers’ or “network sniffers” to monitor all information flowing through these portals. Although Chinese companies have since learned how to build this technology, the government originally hired Cisco to manufacture these devices.

      Cisco also provided the government with a system of cutting-edge databases known as Policenet. Cisco’s Policenet connects the various agencies and levels of command within the Public Security Bureau and stores a wealth of information on countless Chinese citizens. This system enables authorities to identify citizens on the street through facial recognition technology and then instantaneously obtain an array of personal information. Such information includes political behavior, familial relationships, and Internet browsing history. This technology has played an integral role in official campaigns to capture and subsequently torture dissidents, including Du Daobin.

      Although Cisco claims that they did not produce or market such technologies specifically for the Chinese government, leaked internal documents suggest otherwise. For example, Cisco used marketing materials to reassure the Chinese government that the goal of the Golden Shield is to “douzheng the evil falun gong cult and other hostile elements.” For those unfamiliar with Cultural Revolution era rhetoric, the verb “douzheng” in this context is laden with inflammatory implications invoking the practice of purging “class enemies.” In other words, Cisco used language from the Cultural Revolution to convince the Communist Party that the purpose of their product is to effectively persecute dissidents. Cisco also explicitly recognized that the Chinese government routinely sends political dissidents to slave labor camps. Moreover, contrary to the claim that the company merely provided standard equipment and services to the Chinese government, Cisco touted its commitment to providing ongoing training and support to Chinese officials on how to effectively identify and track individuals.

      Cisco continues to profit handsomely from participating in China’s Golden Shield Project. In fact, the company generates an estimated annual profit of $500 million from operations in China and holds a 60% share of the Chinese market for routers, switches, and other sophisticated networking gear. Permitting Cisco to benefit from knowingly facilitating repression without accounting for foreseeable atrocities will only encourage other corporations to disregard human rights considerations when conducting business abroad.  


      The ATS and the Supreme Court

      Du, along with 12 other plaintiffs, sought legal relief against Cisco in American federal court. In addition to state law causes of action, the plaintiffs in Cisco have invoked the ATS in alleging that Cisco aided and abetted the Chinese government in torturing and subjecting the plaintiffs to prolonged arbitrary detention in violation of international law. Enacted by many of the Founding Fathers during the First US Congress in 1789, the ATS provides American courts with the authority to hear lawsuits alleging a narrow list of violations of international law that occurred beyond US borders. Despite the statute’s noble history, the Supreme Court is considering limiting its applicability. The Court, however, should uphold the ATS as a means to seek justice against US corporations that commit or assist in the commission of human rights abuses in foreign countries. Failing to do so would leave many victims without legal recourse and eliminate a primary deterrent against abhorrent corporate behavior abroad.

      The Supreme Court will decide two major issues related to the ATS during the current term: 1) whether US courts have jurisdiction to adjudicate cases alleging the violation of international law when the conduct at issue occurred in a foreign country; and 2) whether corporations are immune from liability for violations of international law.

      Regarding the first issue, American courts already have jurisdiction in certain circumstances to hear cases involving allegations of misconduct that occurred outside the US when the defendant is an American. It seems incongruous to permit lawsuits for petty offenses that occur abroad while prohibiting lawsuits alleging egregious human rights violations; if an American could potentially face liability over a fender bender that happened in a foreign country, why should he avoid liability for committing torture? 

      Advocates of limiting the scope of the ATS argue that permitting American courts to hear lawsuits arising from conduct that occurred in a foreign country would damage US standing abroad. However, far from bolstering our image, allowing Americans to commit atrocities with impunity would almost certainly damage US foreign relations. Moreover, the US Department of State, Department of Commerce, and the Solicitor General all signed a legal brief in support of the plaintiff class in Kiobel v. Dutch Royal Shell, the ATS case currently before the Supreme Court. As such, chief foreign affairs policy-making bodies have indicated that the ATS serves US strategic interests.

      It is also imperative that the Supreme Court continues to allow US courts to hear ATS claims involving US corporate defendants. Contrary to the claim of a lone federal circuit court, corporate tort liability has developed into a widely accepted international norm. Countries around the world have appropriately decided that the increasingly important role corporations have assumed in the global economy should entail attendant rights and obligations. Echoing the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Federal Circuit, immunizing corporations from liability for violations of international law would make the US the true global outlier. Moreover, failing to recognize corporate liability under the ATS would signal that the American judicial system values the interests of corporations over the dignity of human beings.  

      Permitting corporate immunity would also create arbitrary distinctions among corporate and non-corporate defendants. Why should a group of individuals escape liability for committing torture merely because they filed documents of incorporation? Allowing a hypothetical “Torture, Inc.” to commit atrocities with impunity would make a mockery of human rights law.



      Cisco needs to face the consequences of directly assisting the Chinese government in persecuting activists. Far from selling only standardized products without knowledge of their intended use, Cisco used Cultural Revolution era rhetoric to reassure the Chinese government that the Golden Shield’s purpose is to target dissidents.

      Du Daobin deserves compensation and recognition for the suffering he endured. The Supreme Court, however, might issue a ruling that could make it more difficult for him and other similarly situated dissidents to obtain relief. In order to vindicate the rights of victims and uphold foundational American ideals, it is imperative that the Supreme Court preserves the ATS as means to seek justice against US corporations that commit human rights offenses abroad. 

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?