The Verdict is In: Bo Xilai’s Trial Shows China Lacks Rule-of-Law

bo-xilai-trial_2650254b.jpg“We must firmly establish, throughout society, the authority of the Constitution and the law.” This was not the rallying cry of a Chinese dissident encouraging fellow activists from behind bars, but rather a statement issued last year by current Chinese President Xi Jinping on the need to enhance the rule-of-law in order to effectively tackle corruption. Xi followed this lofty rhetoric with an expansive anti-graft campaign, purportedly targeting officials at all levels of government, from low-level “flies” to high-ranking “tigers.”

According to some, the sentencing of Bo Xilai, the notorious former Chongqing Party Secretary and Politburo member, to life in prison demonstrates that Xi has made strides cracking down on corruption through enhancing the rule-of-law. Never mind that Bo was denied his choice of counsel. Never mind that Bo’s verdict was determined long in advance. Never mind that Wang Xuemei, a top government forensic scientist who criticized Bo’s wife’s murder conviction as based on faulty and insufficient evidence, resigned in protest ahead of Bo’s trial, citing the “ridiculous” and “irresponsible” standards for admitting evidence in Chinese courts. To some observers, the mere application of criminal procedures apparently represents meaningful progress.

AJ201308210063M.jpgAt the same time, law professor and activist Xu Zhiyong sits in a Beijing prison awaiting trial. Xu’s crime? Taking seriously President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption crusade by establishing the New Citizen Movement, a loose group of activists who seek to strengthen Chinese civil society and expose government corruption. Speaking from his jail cell last month, Xu echoed Xi’s sentiment by calling on fellow citizens to join him in promoting the rule-of-law in China.

The prosecution of these two very different men points to the same conclusion: Xi’s pledge to implement rule-of-law reforms and tackle pervasive corruption is hollow and disingenuous. His campaign has only helped him consolidate power and gain popular legitimacy.

Despite Xi’s colorful metaphors and stern rhetoric, he has mostly focused on swatting low-level flies lacking protection from powerful political patrons. To the extent he has gone after high-ranking officials, such arrests have advanced important political objectives. In Bo Xilai, Xi eliminated a potential political rival who had proven adept at amassing political capital through mobilizing grassroots support, which enabled him to build a power base independent from the Party’s internal political power structure. His incarceration also provides Xi with a high-profile caged tiger to showcase the legitimacy of his anti-corruption efforts and serves as a warning to cadres who might challenge him.

The government has, however, effectively and systematically detained rights advocates, including dozens affiliated with Xu’s New Citizens Movement. Under Xi’s nascent tenure, Chinese authorities have formally arrested as many as 100 activists for advocating the rule-of-law and constitutionalism. Police beat, arrested, or otherwise detained 44 lawyers in July alone. In the weeks following Xu’s arrest on July 16, Uzra Zeya, a senior US diplomat, remarked that she “continued to see a deterioration in the overall human rights situation in China,” noting the growing trend of detaining and harassing human rights activists and their families.

In arresting Xu, the government silenced a leading voice for implementing rule-of-law reforms; measures aimed at creating an independent judiciary that would impartially administer justice and enforce the substantive rights of citizens. Far from working to establish a more robust, less politicized legal system, Xi has strengthened his control over the Central Political-Legal Committee, the organization in charge of China’s public security and legal apparatus. Perhaps predictably, Xi grabbed the reigns of this immensely powerful committee under the guise of curbing local abuses of power. Rather than enhancing the institutional integrity of China’s judicial system, Xi has merely used the shield of criminal procedure as a sword to attack political opponents and civil society activists.

Taken at face value, Xi’s efforts to tackle corruption through promoting the rule-of-law have been a failure. Viewed as a means to solidify power, however, his anti-graft crusade has proved remarkably successful. Under the pretext of cracking down on corruption, Xi has managed to strengthen his grip over the military, the public security apparatus, and the courts, the so-called “mountain tops” (shantou) of power within the Party. In addition to gaining greater administrative control over key institutions, Xi’s initiatives provide him with a means to test the loyalty of cadres charged with implementing and abiding by central government directives.

Chinese leaders have long launched campaigns over politically sensitive issues, such as corruption, in order to quell political opposition and consolidate power. Mao Zedong justified his devastatingly violent political purges by stressing the need to struggle against corrupt and reactionary “flies” and “tigers.” Former President Hu Jintao targeted Shanghai Party Secretary and Politburo member Chen Liangyu in a 2006 anti-corruption campaign aimed at tightening his grip on power by weakening former President Jiang Zemin’s power base in Shanghai. Emphasizing the scope of the campaign, Hu asserted, “No matter how high their positions are, anyone who violates party rules or national law will be severely investigated and punished.” Xi has used almost identical language in calling for wide-ranging investigations. In light of historical realities, Xi’s “tigers” and “flies” are perhaps best viewed as sacrificial lambs.

Vowing to fight corruption through strengthening the rule-of-law is also an effective PR campaign for domestic and international consumption. On the domestic front, appearing to vigorously attack corruption bolsters Xi’s perceived strength and legitimacy. Targeting low-level officials also enables Xi to shift blame for government corruption on local officials, a strategy that resonates with ordinary Chinese by tapping into historical animosity toward local governments. Paying lip service to promoting the rule-of-law appeals to Chinese liberals and international observers.

The prosecutions of Xu Zhiyong and Bo Xilai, however, expose the hollowness of Xi’s campaign. We should not confuse empty rhetoric and the observance of mere procedural formalities for substantive change. 


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?