On a brisk Monday morning, a group of students from the University of Maryland visited the Laogai Museum. The students are part of a program called Alternative Breaks, which according to its website, “envisions a world of globally-conscious citizens who are transforming communities for good.” They unequivocally lived up to the groups' mission statement.
For most students on spring break, it harks a time of sun, beach and parties, but this group was not the normal collegiate club. The students showed a keen awareness toward the U.S. relationship with China. It was unfortunate that not one of the students knew much about the laogai—China’s penal system. It’s not surprising. Most people don’t, even those with invested interests have limited knowledge of the laogai.
However, it was evident that by the end of the museum tour and after speaking with Mr. Harry Wu, Executive Director of the Laogai Research Foundation, the students were impressed by their newfound knowledge.
Many of students asked deeply profound questions during the tour. How come more hasn’t been done about prison made goods? Why aren’t more people informed about the prison system in China? Are most the prisoners real criminals or political prisoners?
The questions came fast and to the point. It’s not always easy getting the answer, for sometimes the answers are not definitive. However Laogai Museum does make a point to aid the public in awareness and education.
Why isn’t there been more done about prison made goods?
According to the Tariff Act of 1930, Customs and Border Protection has the authority to seize shipments where forced labor was suspected and block further imports. The last time the Tariff Act was implemented was sixteen years ago and only 39 times. That’s because with most legislation there are loopholes. Stipulated in the act is something called “consumptive demands”—insufficient supply to meet domestic demands, imports are allowed regardless of how they were produced.
On February 24, 2016, the Obama Administration has sought to tie up the loose ends by enacting the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act eliminating consumptive demands allowing more stringent enforcement.
Is there a reasonable method for the U.S. to condemn China and its use of the laogai system?
Details on the system are few. There are only a few organizations that specialize in uncovering the facts that China often skews. These institutions are not usually working together either. At the same time, there are a growing number of invested interests here in the U.S., which is threatened by a stanch stance against China.
Before the end of the question and answer session, an insightful question came from the student audience:
What’s the best way for students to fight for the cause?
In terms of making a large impact, it’s difficult exactly what a single person can do. However the best thing to do is to know your history. Understand where China came from, what it was, and what it is today. As of 2013 there are almost 300,000 students studying in United State universities alone. According to the White House, 1.8 million Chinese tourists visited in that same year. There is a growing interest by the Chinese to know more about America and spend time here. Many families want to send their children to foreign universities, if not specifically American institutions of higher education. Sixty years ago the Americans were looked as imperialists to the Chinese and had a very negative stigma against them. Much like the Middle East of today, Americans are unfamiliar with China, its history and how it operates. To say simply, inform yourself, share your findings, and keep asking questions.