Xi Jinping: The Pitiful “Real Man”

A new group of leaders recently took power in China. After becoming the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in November, Xi Jinping just received another official title: President of the People’s Republic of China. This new group of leaders also includes several Politburo members, each tasked with overseeing political, military, economic and cultural affairs in China. This ruling body proclaimed that it will not “take the old path” nor “the wicked route” in the future, preferring instead to “create a new path.” Whatever the meaning of this convoluted metaphor, it fails to shed light on the new government’s policy intentions. Are they referring to choosing between the “Mao road” or the “Deng road?” Everybody is thoroughly confused.

Of course, we have seen some “new signs.” For example, Xi Jinping has asked his daughter who was studying in the US to return to China. Wang Qishan has also stated that he will take charge in severely cracking down on corruption and degeneration. Moreover, the whole Communist Party, from low-level minions to high-ranking officials, is prohibited from engaging in food and drink binges, using public cars for private travel, and conducting extravagant meetings. Officials also assert that the “laojiao” labor camp system must end. Additionally, the central government will reportedly consolidate departments of the State Council, especially the two departments in charge of family planning and railway affairs. Xi Jinping has also signaled an intention to fight intensely for control of the contested Diaoyu Islands, thus greatly enhancing nationalism and patriotism. The list goes on and on.

China watchers have also speculated on how the government will handle some of the more high profile cases after the “National People’s Congress” concludes in March. Regarding Bo Xilai, the way in which his trial is conducted has no bearing on its eventual outcome; Bo Xilai is a dead tiger and everyone is just enjoying watching the show. Xi Jinping will, however, likely do something in the case of Liu Xiaobo. Originally, Liu Xiaobo firmly declined to go overseas and insisted upon staying in China. This angered the Hu Jintao regime and prompted it to issue a draconian sentence. If Liu Xiaobo has somehow “repented” during the last two years and agreed to leave China, in light of the widespread international attention the case has received, the Xi Jinping regime will likely immediately give him the green light to leave the country. However, it is also possible that the regime will first release him on medical parole before releasing him from custody entirely if he obeys certain stipulated terms.  

Are there still broader issues to tackle? Yes. One is the historical legacy of Mao Zedong. In light of Mao’s notoriety, a number of disturbing facts would come to light if people in China were allowed to publicly criticize his reign. Such truths include how Mao drove Peng Dehuai, Liu Shaoqi, He Long and Lin Biao to death, how 35-45 million people starved to death during the Great Famine as a result of his policies (an era also marked by widespread cannibalism), and how more than 1 million “rightists” were persecuted during various campaigns. In the end, Mao killed all of the landlords and instituted a policy of “land reform,” which granted the government control over all land in China.  Government officials have since enriched themselves through exploiting this ill-gotten land for commercial use. If these facts were exposed, at the very least, Mao’s portrait and corpse would not remain in Tiananmen Square

Revealing Mao’s legacy, however, has more practical relevance to China’s current system of governance than cosmetic changes to Tiananmen Square. On a procedural level, the way in which thousands of members of the People’s Congress are appointed and the process of “electing” members of the ruling Standing Committee remains the same as it did during Mao’s time. The institution and structure of Chinese governance is the direct product of Mao. How can they dispose of this system’s grand architect, Mao Zedong? Doing so might fundamentally alter China’s political landscape. This is perhaps the substantive contents of some of the “political reforms” of today’s communist party. As such, people also get a clear understanding of  the meaning of “reforms” .

During the last couple of days, I have watched interviews with Mao Xinyu, Mao Zedong’s grandson, that were broadcast on Phoenix TV. Mao Xinyu talked very excitedly about democracy and, just like Xi Jinping, lambasted corrupt Party members. In fact, before taking over China in 1949, his grandfather had talked to the democrat Huang Yanpei about democracy and spoken about American democracy with journalists. After taking power, he still talked about “democracy.” This time, however, it referred to “socialist democracy,” which is quite different. Later, when it came to purging Liu Shaoqi and Lin Biao, there was “no time” to talk about democracy. Therefore, when I heard Mao Xinyu talking about democracy with such passion, I could not help but want to hear his thoughts on the evolution of Mao Zedong’s “democratic” ideas and the prospects for Xi Jinping’s “Chinese dream.” Maybe he could help me decode Xi’s recent statements.

Additional slogans recited by Xi and his colleagues have not provided any more clarity regarding the direction in which they plan to lead China. Recently, however, he delivered a speech that drew considerable attention. Quite unexpectedly, Xi Jinping talked about the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Soviet Communist Party in 1991. He asked, “Why was there not a single ‘real man’ willing to stand up to it?”

 I was greatly dismayed by this remark and even doubted whether I had heard it correctly. I thought that maybe the media had got it wrong. Was he suggesting that the Soviet Union fell because of the weakness and cowardice of individual leaders? The Soviet Union was an enormous empire composed of 16 republics, possessed thousands of long-range missiles and nuclear bombs, and flaunted an immensely powerful air force, army, and internal security apparatus.  How come such an empire suddenly disintegrated? How come all the 16 component republics declared independence one-by-one? After all, the Soviet Communist Party was the very first socialist regime. Theoretically and practically, it possessed a wealth of experience and cultural richness. Countless Soviet citizens had sacrificed their lives for the communist cause. How come all suddenly changed? Was it simply abandoned? I too wonder why no single “real man” stood up to resist change. Did Gorbachev, Xi’s straw man, just entice everyone to submit to his will through his overwhelming charisma? Maybe Gorbachev used his overpowering strength to vanquish the Communist Party. Perhaps, however, this was the natural result of societal forces pushing the country toward the historical trend of democratic empowerment.

In 1992, I traveled to Moscow. Most streets were dark at dusk, likely a consequence of ongoing turmoil. While walking the streets of Moscow, I bought and (picked up) many certificates of Soviet party membership that had been abandoned. One such certificate indicated that the person had been a member of the Party for 28 years. In my view, it takes a real man to discard this badge of identity under the former regime and embrace a freer but more uncertain future. Maybe this faceless citizen in fact represents the “real man” of history.

Today’s Moscow has changed drastically since my visit and will see even more change in the future. In spite of the many problems associated with the transition from communism, the change represented progress. In addition to undergoing drastic “shock therapy,” it is worth noting that Russia did not abolish state ownership of land until 2002, 11 years after the fall of the Soviet Union. Today, although many legitimately criticize Russian President Putin, Russia is a better place than it was under communist rule.

Communist revolution (or socialist revolution) was a thought trend in the last century representing a political tendency. That is, when seeking prosperity, equality, freedom, and high-quality life, people would ultimately trust in the ideas and propositions of such men as Marx and Engels. Lenin capitalized on this sentiment and emerged to lead Russia’s working class toward achieving these goals. Stalin followed this path. However, emerging in China was Mao Zedong, who did not rely on the labor class, but peasant revolts.

The Soviet Communist Party established the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics by uniting 16 republics and claimed to “liberate all humanity,” eradicate exploitation, and set up a world communist society where there would be no classes and equality would prevail. Countless people sacrificed their lives for this ideal. In the end, however, the great Soviet Union disappeared. This was not because any single “real man” willed it to disappear, nor was it because a “real man” failed to stand up to the opposition. It was because of a broader, unyielding societal shift that demanded reform.

Faced with this historical trend toward democratic empowerment, does Xi Jinping really want a “real man” who resists change? Perhaps he meant to say that when the Chinese Communist Party collapses in China, he wishes that some “real man” will stand up to prevent the collapse. Maybe Xi is positioning himself to emerge as the “real man” who stands up in such an eventuality.

China is currently at the same crossroads faced by the Soviet Union decades ago. Looking beyond ambiguous statements about “old roads” and “wicked roads,” Xi’s claims about the “real man” of history provide insight into the path he wishes to take. It seems that the mighty Xi Jinping wants to be the “real man” who stands up to overwhelming historical forces.

We all of course know what will come of pitiful Xi Jinping’s attempt to resist inevitable 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?