The fight for democracy in Hong Kong is the defining struggle of our age

The conflict reflects a broader contest between liberal democracy and populist authoritarianism. China must not be allowed to impose direct rule

Police fire tear gas at protesters outside the Legislative Council Complex on July 2, 2019 in Hong Kong, China.

‘Xi values the wealth and opportunities Hong Kong provides, but his nightmare is that insurrectionary democratic ideas could spread.’ Photograph: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

By accident or design, the eruption of political violence in Hong Kong has opened the way for direct rule from Beijing. It is unlikely radical new measures to bring Britain’s former colony to heel will be imposed overnight. But furious official statements in response to Monday’s unprecedented clashes suggest the “one country, two systems” principle that has kept capitalist Hong Kong functioning alongside, and within, communist China for the past 22 years could be on its last legs.

This long-simmering crisis of mutual confidence, now finding expression through physical confrontation, is exactly what the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984, which laid legal grounds for the 1997 handover, was intended to avoid. It states unambiguously that “the current social and economic systems in Hong Kong will remain unchanged, and so will the lifestyle. Rights and freedoms, including those of the person, of speech, of the press, of assembly … and of religious belief will be ensured by law.”

China says Hong Kong violence 'totally intolerable'

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These fundamental rights are routinely ignored in mainland China under the authoritarian leadership of Xi Jinping. Hong Kong residents have watched with alarm as basic freedoms and the “high degree of autonomy”, guaranteed to them in the joint declaration, have been relentlessly chipped away. The row over a proposed law facilitating extradition of criminal suspects to the mainland, where the judiciary is politically directed, is but one symptom of a more deep-seated unease.

If China’s leaders had kept the solemn promises made to Margaret Thatcher, Hong Kong’s slow, chronic collapse of trust might not have occurred. But Beijing, having achieved its aim of regaining control, has grown increasingly complacent, even arrogant. It declared two years ago that the joint declaration, a UN-registered treaty intended to remain in force for 50 years, was a non-binding “historical document” lacking “any practical significance”. Its agreed guarantees were null and void.

Given it recognises no legal or other constraints on its behaviour, Xi’s regime will now feel free to deal with the Hong Kong unrest as it sees fit. The signs are ominous. Whether or not the violence was deliberately orchestrated by Beijing, as Martin Lee, the respected pro-democracy activist and former legislator, has suggested, China seems determined to exploit the opportunity it has created to tighten its grip and accelerate the process of forcible political assimilation.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam

Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam. Photograph: China News Service/VCG via Getty Images

The Global Times, a Communist party mouthpiece, played up the protesters’ “reckless and savage violence” and urged zero tolerance. Professing concern for the city’s future as a “reliable” international hub, it said the threat to social order must be eliminated. “Without this policy, it would be similar to opening a Pandora’s Box.”

More significantly in terms of what happens next, the Hong Kong and Macau office of the State Council, China’s cabinet, said the “violent offenders’ criminal responsibility” comprised “a blatant challenge to the bottom line of the ‘one country, two systems’ formula”. China Daily went further: “The only way for [Hong Kong] to sustain economic growth and maintain stability is for it to further integrate its own development into the nation’s overall development.”

These are statements of intent. Xi and the cadres fully understand the benefits to China, especially at this juncture in its ambitious economic development, of having one of the world’s foremost financial and business centres under their wing. They also surely realise a Tiananmen-style military crackdown would have severely negative international repercussions. But what to do if turbulence in Hong Kong persists, threatening a wider contagion?

Imposing de facto direct rule from Beijing while maintaining the rhetoric of “one country, two systems” and the pretence of self-governance looks like an increasingly attractive solution for Xi. Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s unpopular chief executive, will be kept in place, if only because allowing her ousting would reflect badly on China’s president. Autonomous appearances will be kept up. But the prospective reality, more so than is already the case, is of a mere puppet administration whose direction and policies are set in Beijing.

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Xi values the wealth and opportunities Hong Kong provides. But he cannot tolerate dissent on this scale, given existing discontent across mainland China sparked by the economic slowdown, governance failures and expanding state authoritarianism. His nightmare is that insurrectionary democratic ideas could spread and be exploited by outside actors. For him, Hong Kong is a great prize turned potential Trojan horse.

The US and Britain are most often singled out for attack, even though the British government has been restrained in its comments – in fact, far too much so. “The anti-extradition drive has all the hallmarks of a US-patented ‘colour revolution’,” a pro-regime commentator, Thomas Hon Wing Polin, wrote last month. “Classic characteristics: long-term cultivation of local opposition leaders, always under the ‘pro-democracy’ banner; funding, direct and indirect; support via media propaganda and advisers on destabilisation and even uprisings; and recognition of the ‘democrats’, if regime change is necessary.”

This is mostly paranoid fantasy. But it is correct in one key respect. The Hong Kong “two systems” crisis reflects a broader, global clash not of civilisations but of ideologies, crudely defined – a contest between liberal, democratic laws-based governance and authoritarian, nationalist-populist “strongman” rule. It is the defining struggle of our age. Which is why Hong Kong’s protesters deserve whole-hearted support – and Xi must not be allowed to crush them.

• Simon Tisdall is a foreign affairs commentator and former Guardian foreign editor


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
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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?