A Jail for China's Elite: Better Food, Beds, Cells


China's privileged remain privileged even in prison.

When Gu Kailai, wife of disgraced Chinese leader Bo Xilai, is sent to prison following her conviction for the murder of a British businessman, she's likely to end up in an exclusive jail that has cells with sofas and private bathrooms.

Tucked in the hills an hour's drive north of Beijing and hidden behind several guarded, unmarked gates, Qincheng Prison has for a half-century housed miscreants from the political elite: purged Communist Party rivals, corrupt politicians, newspaper editors critical of the government, leaders of the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy movement, Chairman Mao's power-hungry widow.

"The prison is known because it has locked up China's most famous political prisoners," said Dai Qing, a journalist and the adopted daughter of a revolutionary general who spent about six months in Qincheng after taking part in the 1989 Tiananmen movement though she was never formally charged.

When the metal-wrapped door opened to her cell, Dai was "pleasantly surprised," she recalled in an essay written in the 1990s.

"My cell room was quite sizeable," at about 20 square meters, or 215 square feet, Dai wrote. The cell was freshly painted and had a separate washroom, and while the bed was a wooden plank on two low benches, it was padded with two thin military quilts and covered in new bedding, she wrote.

Qincheng (pronounced CHIN-CHUNG) is no 'Club Fed' — the nickname for the comfortable minimum security federal prisons for white-collar criminals in the U.S. Previous inmates have described being mistreated and watched at all times. They have complained about the food and the isolation. Still, it is plush by the standards of Chinese prisons, where cells are filled with a dozen or so inmates, long hours of physical labor are required and beatings by inmates and guards routine.

The better conditions in Qincheng underscore how the Chinese elite take care of their own, even in disgrace. So many higher-level officials are being felled in crackdowns on endemic corruption these days that China recently opened a new model prison, Yancheng, with a wing for the elite. The cells there are similar to hotel rooms, though with glass walls between bed and bath, and have balconies for exercise or clothes-drying, according to state media reports.

Still, nothing says "politically connected" like Qincheng.

"This is a special prison," said Bao Tong, a former high-level party official who spent seven years in Qincheng for opposing the crackdown that ended the Tiananmen protests.

The Public Security Ministry, which oversees Qincheng, denied a written AP request to visit the prison and declined any interview about it.

Dubbed Project No. 157 and built with the help of the Soviet Union, Qincheng opened in 1960 to replace a dilapidated jail holding political prisoners and military commanders from the Nationalist government ousted by the communists in the civil war between 1945 and 1949.

To shine a positive light on the new regime, Qincheng was designed with amenities such as flush toilets, medical clinics and fitness facilities that were out of reach for most Chinese at the time.

When Chairman Mao Zedong unleashed waves of purges in his radical Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s, Qincheng was overwhelmed. The prison was expanded to accommodate the influx, and conditions became more uneven. Torture became common.

Wu Faxian, an air force general purged ostensibly for plotting a coup, was kept in a cell 3 feet (one meter) by 10 feet (three meters). "There was no desk or chair. My clothes and eating utensils were on the floor, and the bugs crawled into them," he wrote in his memoir.

Once a month he received a haircut and a shave and shared one dull nail clipper with other inmates. A diet of coarse cornbread and boiled cabbage left him malnourished.

"Black dots kept appearing in front of my eyes, and sometime they were raining down," Wu wrote.

When the political tide turned a decade later, Mao's widow, Jiang Qing, was sent to Qincheng. Harry Wu, a U.S.-based human rights activist who recently published a book on Qincheng, said Jiang was placed in a two-room suite with a private bathroom, possibly the best Qincheng could provide.

Conditions improved. Dai, the journalist, said gradually she was given newspapers and books from the jail library — William Shirer's "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich," popular martial arts novels by Louis Cha and the Chinese classic "The Dream of the Red Chamber."

Dai was allowed a two-hour break every day, though she was disappointed to find herself alone in a walled courtyard, watched over by guards. "Like caged lions and tigers, most of us walked back and forth impatiently," she wrote.

Bao recalled the walls dividing the courtyards were so thick that guards could patrol on top of them. "They wore an ammunition belt, but I didn't know if they were armed," Bao said.

An egg was added to his breakfast of bread and porridge after his wife complained to Jiang Zemin, then the party's secretary general, Bao said. His family also got him a mosquito net, and sent him books, which he received after they were checked page by page to make sure they contained no unauthorized correspondence, Bao said.

Qincheng got a remodeling in the mid-'90s to make way for a new breed of prisoners: senior officials who had grown used to lavish liftestyles and were being ostensibly purged for untrammeled graft. In 1996, when Bao returned to a Qincheng prison cell after spending time in a prison-affiliated hospital, his accommodations were much grander.

His cell had a sofa, and the plank bed propped up by wooden benches was replaced with a mattress bed. The beddings were no longer white.

"They were really pretty — as if they were for weddings," Bao said. "It was like someone just got rich overnight."

Among Qincheng's inmates in recent years were Chen Xitong, the party secretary of Beijing, and Chen Liangyu, who held a similar position in Shanghai. Not related, the two Chens were purged in separate embezzlement scandals a decade apart, though political analysts say their real crimes were political — losing out in power struggles.

Chen Xitong, deposed in 1995, went on a hunger strike to protest the poor food, according to a recent book by Yao Jianfu, a retired scholar who interviewed Chen. Yao said Chen was given a radio to listen to Voice of America and keep up with the outside world.

Chen Liangyu, removed in 2006, kept a daily routine inside the prison, practicing tai chi in addition to reading newspapers, books and watching TV, Hong Kong-based media have reported. The reports said he wore a Western-style suit in prison.


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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

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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?