Does China's next leader have a soft spot for Tibet?

(Reuters) - For decades, Beijing has maintained that the Dalai Lama is a separatist, but Tibet's exiled spiritual leader once had a special relationship with the father of Xi Jinping, the man in line to become China's next president.

Few people know what Xi, whose ascent to the leadership is likely to be approved at a Communist Party congress later this year, thinks of Tibet or the Dalai Lama.

But his late father, Xi Zhongxun, a liberal-minded former vice premier, had a close bond with the Tibetan leader who once gave the elder Xi an expensive watch in the 1950s, a gift that the senior party official was still wearing decades later.

The Dalai Lama, 77, recalls the elder Xi as "very friendly, comparatively more open-minded, very nice" and says he only gave watches back then to those Chinese officials he felt close to.

"We Tibetans, we get these different varieties of watch easily from India. So we take advantage of that, and brought some watches to some people when we feel some sort of close feeling, as a gift like that," the Dalai Lama said in an interview in the Indian town of Dharamsala, a capital for Tibetan exiles in the foothills of the Himalayas.

The Dalai Lama gave the watch to the elder Xi in 1954 during an extended visit to Beijing. Xi was one of the officials who spent time with the young Dalai Lama in the capital where he spent five to six months studying Chinese and Marxism.

The Dalai Lama fled to India five years later, after a failed uprising against Communist rule, but as late as 1979, Xi senior was still wearing the watch, the make and style of which the Dalai Lama can no longer remember.

Xi senior was a dove in the party, championing the rights of Tibetans, Uighurs and other ethnic minorities. He also opposed the army crackdown on the 1989 Tiananmen student protests and was alone in criticizing the sacking of liberal party chief Hu Yaobang by the Old Guard in 1987. Xi senior died in 2002.

The Dalai Lama has never met Xi junior but his fondness for the father is, for some, a sign that China's next leader may adopt a more reformist approach to Tibet once he formally succeeds President Hu Jintao next March. Some expect him to be more tolerant of Muslim Uighurs in the western region of Xinjiang, and also of Taiwan, the independently ruled island that China has vowed to take back, by force if necessary.

"To understand what kind of leader Xi Jinping will be, one must study his father's (policies)," said Bao Tong, one-time top aide to purged party chief Zhao Ziyang. Bao was jailed for seven years for sympathizing with student-led demonstrations for democracy centered on Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989.

"No (Chinese) Communist will betray his father," he added.


Xi senior is looked on favorably by China's leaders with plans already made to commemorate his 100th birth anniversary in mid-October next year with a ceremony at the Great Hall of the People and editorials and commentaries in state media eulogizing him, sources with ties to the leadership said.

But even if Xi junior wants to pursue a reform agenda, he is likely to bide his time.

"The key is whether Xi Jinping feels confident of his power consolidation," said Lin Chong-Pin, a former Taiwan defense minister and China policy-maker who now teaches at Taipei's Tamkang University.

Lin added, however: "There will be a more tolerant policy not only (towards) Tibet, but also Xinjiang."

Taiwan, the democratic island Beijing claims as its own, may be the model for reconciliation with Tibet.

"Every generation of (Chinese) leaders must resolve problems left over from the previous generation," a source with leadership ties said.

"For Hu, it was Taiwan," the source added, referring to Hu mending fences with the island after his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, threatened it with war games in the run-up to its first direct presidential elections in 1996.

"For Xi, it's Tibet," the source said.

Asked if Xi might take a different tack on Tibet, a retired party official who used to work in Tibet said: "There has to be new thinking ... He (Xi) is surely aware of the problems."

"More and more government spending, more and more security, is not going to buy enduring stability in Tibet," the official said, referring to China pouring billions of yuan to develop Tibet, including opening a railway in 2006 linking it with the rest of China, and a crackdown in the wake of the unrest.

"The high-pressure policies can't continue forever," the official said, asking not to be identified and adding that these were his personal views.


Xi has played his cards close to his chest and little is publicly known about his policies. Like Hu, he will be no political strongman, and will have to rule by consensus as the first among equals.

If Hu stays on as military chief, Hu may continue to hold sway over major policies, but is unlikely to oppose detente.

"Hu will not be an obstacle to (any) reconciliation" moves, a second source with leadership ties said.

Initially, Hu sought to make up for his decision to crush riots in Tibet in 1989 by issuing a decree to "protect Tibetan culture" in the early 2000s, but was taken aback when the Dalai Lama accused China of "cultural genocide".

China has defended its iron-fisted rule in Tibet, saying the region suffered from dire poverty, brutal exploitation of serfs and economic stagnation until 1950 when Communist troops "peacefully liberated" it and introduced "democratic reforms" in 1959.

Tensions over the issue are at their highest in years after a spate of protests and self-immolations by Tibetan activists, which have led to an intensified security crackdown. Fifty-one Tibetans have set themselves alight since 2009.

In the event the Dalai Lama dies in exile, it could radicalize exiled Tibetan youth who have clamored for independence and are frustrated with his "middle way" approach that advocates autonomy within China.

It could create a rallying point for Tibetans disgruntled with Communist rule and leave a destabilizing leadership vacuum.

"They (Chinese government) hope Tibet's political problem can be basically resolved once the Dalai Lama passes away," said Wang Lixiong, an author and expert on Tibet who has met the Dalai Lama several times.

Instead, Wang added, "the Dalai Lama's death could spark massive protests and even rioting."


The outbreak of rioting in Tibet in 2008 ahead of the Beijing Olympics and a subsequent crackdown, which in turn sparked the self-immolations, may have prevented Hu from carrying out any reversal of China's hard-line policy on Tibet.

At the time of the riots, Xi commented: "We should have normal hearts" - a remark that was in stark contrast to insults rained on the Dalai Lama by the region's then Communist Party boss, Zhang Qingli, who called the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize winner a "jackal in Buddhist monk's robes" with "the face of a human and the heart of a beast".

Zhang was not alone. Many Chinese party, government and military officials and many ordinary Chinese are convinced the 2008 unrest was a Western plot to demonize Beijing before the Games and try to split Tibet from China.

But tempers appear to have cooled a bit.

Hu is maneuvering to promote one of his closest allies - Inner Mongolia party boss Hu Chunhua who speaks Tibetan, a rarity among Chinese officials - to the party's inner sanctum, two independent sources said, in a bid to retain clout after retiring. The two Hus are not related.

In a sign the party may at times be willing to reverse bad decisions or policies, it backed down recently after liberal intellectuals slammed it for forcing Tibetan Buddhist monasteries to put up portraits of Mao and other leaders, Columbia University Tibetologist Robbie Barnett said, adding that local officials now say this is voluntary.

Xi may have more to gain than lose from resuming talks with the Dalai Lama's envoys, but this may not happen anytime soon.

"They probably will take very small, incremental steps. They cannot take big steps," said Lin, the Taiwan-based academic.

Many challenges lie ahead.

"The talks process could start again at any point, we don't know. We shouldn't rule it out even though it looks very negative at the moment," Robbie Barnett, a Tibetologist at Columbia University, said in a telephone interview.

"He may have to prove that he's very tough ... so it could make it quite difficult for Xi. He could risk heavy attack from hardliners. It's quite complicated for him."

But Robert Lawrence Kuhn, author of "How China's Leaders Think", was more optimistic.

"He is a very practical, pragmatic, very down-to-earth kind of person," said Kuhn who has met Xi half a dozen times. "I don't think he has an overblown sense of his own person, which to me is very important. People could rally around him."

The Dalai Lama has said he hopes Xi will usher in a "realistic" and more open approach to Tibet, in the same way Deng Xiaoping introduced market reforms in the late 1970s that turned China into an economic powerhouse from a backwater.

After more than 50 years of confrontation with Beijing, the Dalai Lama is cautious but hopeful.

"I can't say for definite, but according to many Chinese friends, they say the new, coming leadership seems more lenient," he said in an interview in his audience room which was decorated with Buddhist paintings and a bust of Mahatma Gandhi.

He said there had been a stream of visitors to Dharamsala from China, including people who told him they had connections with senior Communist Party leaders. "These are very, very encouraging signs," he said. "No formal talks, but there are sort of signs among the Chinese officials or top leaders."

Tibetan exiles see other small signs that Xi could take a softer line on Tibet - his wife is a Buddhist, and Xi went out of his way in 2006, while party boss of Zhejiang province, to host the first World Buddhist Forum in the provincial capital.

A batch of U.S. diplomatic cables obtained and published by WikiLeaks last year said the Dalai Lama had "great affection" for Xi senior, and that Xi junior was quite taken with Buddhist mysticism at one point early in his career.

In July last year, Xi visited Tibet and pledged to crack down on the separatist "Dalai clique" and "completely smash any plot to destroy stability in Tibet and jeopardize national unity".

But a Western diplomat in Beijing cautioned that this was standard language and should not be construed to be hard-line. "No one wins prizes for saying the Dalai is ok," he said.

But many exiles are skeptical.

"I do not expect Xi junior to be like his father because he is facing a completely different situation, but I hope he can be different (from Hu Jintao)," said Khedroob Thondup, a nephew of the Dalai Lama who visited China more than 10 times with his father, Gyalo Thondup, as unofficial envoys of the Dalai Lama.

Another nephew, Tenzin Taklha, who is also a secretary to the Dalai Lama, said: "Even if it does happen it won't be substantial, just to show the world the door is open again."

The Dalai Lama, too, has yet to be convinced that Beijing will soften its stance on Tibet - even if Xi turns out to have the same moderate inclination as his father - and says political reformers sometimes do not last long in the Communist Party.

"These realistic people sometime live a very short life."

(Additional reporting by John Chalmers in DHARAMSALA and Chris Buckley in BEIJING; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Mark Bendeich)


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
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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.

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(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?