Repeal of “Reeducation through Labor” is Merely a “Reform” Tactic of the Chinese Communist Party

Repeal of “Reeducation through Labor” is Merely a “Reform” Tactic of the Chinese Communist Party


Harry Wu


 “Laojiao”—“reeducation through labor”—is a repressive regime of the Chinese Communist Party and an integral part of the laogai system.


In 1956, the Chinese Communist Party initiated the “Movement to Cleanse Counter-Revolutionary Elements” to further suppress counter-revolutionaries. The primary targets of this purge were the work personnel left over from the Nationalist government, in spite of the fact that the majority of the employees and supporters of the former government, particularly those of relative importance, had already been “suppressed” through the “Movement to Suppress the Counter-Revolution” in 1951. Still, in 1956, “a further cleansing” was carried out. Many of those who had been subjected to “cleansing” had not engaged in counter-revolutionary activities or thought other than holding a job at the former government “prior to the liberation.”


In 1956, late in the “Movement to Cleanse Counter-revolutionary Elements,”about 200,000 people who had no crimes to confess to the Chinese Communist Party, meaning they were not able to provide the Party with an excuse for further repression, were granted “leniency”and were no longer “called into account.” These people, however, were unable to return to their original jobs. Thus, “reeducation through labor” was created. They were paid petty wages, but were imprisoned in laogai camps. It is noteworthy that the Party’s official “Rules for the Reeducation Through Labor” were not published until October 1957.


The second group of people subject to “laojiao,”numbering several tens of thousands, was comprised of“extreme rightists” from the 1957 Anti-Rightist Movement. Immediately following the incarceration of these“extreme rightists,”the third group, numbering several million, was made up of peasants who moved from the countryside to the cities from 1959 to 1961. Because of hunger and a lack of food to eat, they had to flee to the cities for survival. The size of this group was increased by an influx of urban criminals who committed crimes as a result of hunger driving them to seek all kinds of food. This high tide of “laojiao” lasted until the “Cultural Revolution” in 1966.


Led by Mao Zedong, the primary purpose of“the Cultural Revolution”was to “take over power,” dismantle the majority of “dictatorial institutions,” and persecute leading communists, such as Liu Shaoqi, Lin Biao, Chen Yi, and Luo Ruiqing. “Laojiao” had virtually come to a standstill until 1979, when Deng Xiaoping once again assumed power and re-introduced the policy of “laojiao.” More than three decades later, the “laojiao” system has grown to consist of more than 300 camps and a population size of 200,000-300,000. But in recent years, many members of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference and representatives of People’s Congress proposed to “abolish” the laogai system on the grounds that this practice is not in line with the constitution of Communist China, and that the  government may not deprive arbitrarily a person’s freedom for as long as three years. However, the communist government is reluctant to dispense with a disciplinary method to deal with minor criminals that has proved so effective. Therefore, the Chinese Communist Party has been putting off any action, only moving in the direction of reform this past year.


In April 1960, I was sent to “laojiao.” Back then there was no specific term  for a “laojiao” sentence. Rather, as everyone was sentenced to “indefinite laojiao,” it is more appropriate to refer to such camps as“permanent laojiao.”In May 1961, new regulations came into force with a fixed term for everyone and a maximum term of three years. Disorder subsequently ensued within the “laojiao camps”while everyone was accorded a fixed term. I was given a three-year term, but more than one year that I had already served was not counted. As such, the three-year term started from May 1961. This was not bad for me because there was now a “beginning” and I would be “free” after the three-year ordeal.  However, when my term expired in May 1964, my fellow inmates and I were notified that we must “wait for procedures, as there is no instruction from above.” This delay lasted for more than five years until “clearance of laojiao” was announced in December 1969. Thereafter, along with other inmates, I was escorted to “the No. 4 Independent Sub-branch for Reform through Labor in Shanxi Province” (that is, the state-owned Wangzhuang Coal Mine) for forced job placement. Nine years passed before I was officially proclaimed “released.”I was only able to leave the laogai camp because another policy had been implemented to deal with “rightists.”Many others were still left in the Laojiao camps for “forced job placement.”


In 1979, Deng Xiaoping announced the re-introduction of the “laojiao policy.” Nowadays, laojiao victims are mainly “petitioners.” If someone becomes a petitioner, the public security organs in the province (city) where that person resides will be held “accountable.” The so-called “accountability” is to “dissuade” the petitioner from going to Beijing. In addition to trying to block these people at the main transportation hubs within that particular province (city), the public security organs at each province (city) dispatch public security personnel to Beijing for the special purpose of seeking out petitioners. If “persuasion” does not work, these people will simply be sent to “laojiao.” This is the Chinese communist government’s official policy. Without “laojiao,” how would these people be dealt with? As such people are far too numerous, it is impossible to hand out a sentence to them. Moreover, their so-called crimes are not justiciable and there are not enough judges to deal with these cases.“Laojiao”is viewed as the solution to these problems.


In any event, the “laojiao” system that the Chinese Communist Party claimed to root out is just a minor component of the communist “laogai regime.” The eradication of the “laojiao” system will not lead to any change in the entire “laogai regime.” Although the Chinese Communist Party announced in 1994 that the term “laogai” would no longer be used, the basic principles of “forced labor” and “thought reform”remained in place. Ending the use of the term “laogai” merely meant abolishing the “laogai camps” of each province (city) and renaming them“prisons.” The “Administration Bureau for Reform Through Labor” (abbreviated as “Laogai Bureau”) under the department of justice of each province (city) was renamed as the “Administration Bureau for the Prison Work” (abbreviated as “prison administration bureau”). The Chinese Communist Party claimed that the purpose for doing so was to help meet the demands of the“international human rights struggle.”


In 1993, I proposed that the term “laogai” under the Chinese communist system should be accorded the same treatment as the Soviet “Gulag.” “Laogai” should be included in the dictionary as a specialized term and become a commonplace word known to the average person. The Soviet term “Gulag” was coined by Aleksandr Isaevich Solzhenitsyn. Each letter in the word “Gulag” is the acronym for Chief Administration of Corrective Labor Camps and Colonies (Russian: Гла́вное управле́ние исправи́тельно-трудовы́х лагере́й и коло́ний, tr. Glavnoye upravleniye ispravityelno-trudovykh lagerey i koloniy) of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs. Today, it is widely known that “Gulag” refers to the Soviet labor camps, synonymous with Stalinist tyranny. Use of the word“laogai” has flourished in Mainland China for 4-5 decades. People often say that “my father spent twenty years in laogai” or that “his brother died in laogai.” They rarely use terms like “prison” or “detention house.” “Laogai” is just a common noun denoting the methods of rule of the Chinese Communist Party and Mao Zedong. “Laogai” stands for the system of labor camps consisting of a wide range of institutions, such as labor teams, prisons, detention houses, juvenile education houses and houses for reeducation through labor.


It is impossible for “laogai” to be eliminated in Mainland Communist China.  It has to exist and die with the communist regime. The purpose of “laogai” is to suppress all the persons and ideas that are against the communist government. The Chinese Communist Party, however, did suddenly stop using the term “laogai,” instead replacing it with the word“prison.” Nevertheless, the purpose of the Chinese communist prisons is clear-cut: to maintain the repressive system of the “people’s democratic dictatorship.” Nowadays, Chinese “prisons” not only have the Nobel peace laureate Dr. Liu Xiaobo, who was convicted of the crime of “inciting to subvert the regime,” but also such political prisoners as Shi Tao, who was also convicted of the crime of “inciting to subvert the regime.” Every inmate, including criminals such as thieves and hooligans, is subject to “forced labor” and “thought reform,” which means that they must embrace the Communist Party (so-called “patriotism”) and must not convert to any religion at their own will. This is where the Chinese communist prison system (i.e. the laogai system) differs fundamentally from prison systems in every other country. In the US, France, or India, although criminals must serve prison terms, the government may not force them to perform labor or subject them to “thought reform” to turn them into“the new man of socialism.” Additionally, in these countries, regardless of the outcome of presidential elections, political changes do not drastically impact the conditions of prisons or the treatment of prisoners. The situation in China is entirely different.


In recent years, the situation in China has changed dramatically. As I recall, in the 1950s, the materials of the Chinese Communist Party claimed that most of the prisoners were “anti-revolutionaries,” accounting for 80% of the prison population. At that time, the two classes of landlords and capitalists and the former employees of the Nationalist government were the prime targets. However trivial the misconduct--for example, a hungry child of a landlord stealing the grain of the people’s commune for food--such offenses would be viewed as a serious political crime of “trying to launch a vengeful counterattack and destroying the people’s commune.” The children of capitalists were often labeled with the crime of “being anti-revolutionary due to the serious degeneration of bourgeois thought.” Now, probably 90% of these two classes of people have been “wiped out,” meaning they no longer exist. Presently, members of the new “capitalist class” are all “communist cadres.” As a result, class crimes no longer exist and there are far fewer political prisoners in the labor camps.


As many people still remember, Stalin died in 1953, and in 1955, Khrushchev turned against Stalin and Gulag, releasing a lot of prisoners. For example, in Magandan in Far East, about one million prisoners were released, and the city buildings, roads and uranium mines that those people were used to build all closed down. “Gulag” seemed to have disappeared. But Westerners were not convinced. It was in 1974, 21 years after the death of Stalin, that Aleksandr Isaevich Solzhenitsyn coined the term “Gulag.” Not until 1991, however, when the soviet empire disintegrated and the Soviet Communist Party was dissolved, did people begin to formally agree that “Gulag” had elapsed into history.


Today, Xi Jinping complains that no “real men” stood up to Gorbachev as he presided over the dismantling of Soviet Communism. These remarks by Xi Jinping shocked me! Unexpectedly, he reflected upon an historical event that took place in the Soviet Union 22 years ago. Was he perhaps telling people that today’s China is at a similar crossroads and in need of a“real man” to stand up and prevent change?


What a pity! Who is the “real man?” Is it Xi Jinping? Can he stand? The situation faced by the Chinese communist party is very similar to that of the Soviet Union 22 years ago. This is not something that one or two Xi Jinpings can stand up against and prevent. Rather, it represents an historical change.


Today, the Chinese Communist Party has finally decided to reform “laojiao” (it is worth repeating that this is not to reform “laogai”). This is merely a tactical decision. The purpose behind making this concession is to hold on to power. This is a kind of “reform,” but unfortunately, the various kinds of “reform” by the Communist Party are all carried out within the system of the Communist Party, and the communist system will never be “reformed.” Ultimately, the march of history will challenge the supremacy of the communist system. Will the Chinese Communist Party reform? Will one or two “real men,” such as Xi Jinping, win out? Or will history continue to make progress regardless of the obstacles? Everybody knows the final answer. 

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?