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Exposing Laogai: Harry Wu Speaks At AIM Luncheon

By Jason Livingood

Although American elites tend to downplay human rights abuses by the Communist Chinese government, a survivor of China's labor camps says the system continues to claim many victims.

Harry Wu expressed surprise at those who seek to compare China's prison labor camps-the laogai-with the U.S. criminal justice system. He told of a Columbia University professor who claimed there were only 1 to 2 million people in the Chinese prison camps and said that it was therefore on a par with the American system.

The professor's logic, Wu remembered, was that proportionally, China locks up no more prisoners than do U.S. law enforcement officials. Such an approach, according to Wu, misses the point: The laogai are the natural descendants of Nazi concentration camps and Soviet gulags, not Alcatraz and Leavenworth.

"You've got the North Korean gulag and the Soviet gulag but what about China's laogai?" Wu asked at a luncheon hosted by Accuracy in Media on October 23rd. The just-released report on North Korean prison-labor camps describes a nightmarish system, one that jails an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 prisoners. They exist in a continuous state of back-breaking labor, a starvation diet, and sadistic guards. The Chinese laogai hold a number of prisoners Wu believes to be greater than that of the Nazi concentration camps and Soviet gulags put together, about 50 million.

Laogai means roughly, "reform through labor." According to Wu, "Every Chinese person, even in Washington D.C., knows the word laogai." Yet to most everyone else it is an unknown term. In fact, it was only in July of this year that the Oxford English Dictionary added the term to its contents. Its addition is much thanks to Wu, himself a survivor of the camps. He has worked tirelessly to promote awareness of the existence of laogai and the horrors within.

At the age of 23, on April 27, 1960, Wu was sentenced to life imprisonment for having spoken out as was encouraged during the Hundred Flowers Movement. Wu was jailed as a political prisoner for nearly 19 years in the laogai. He would have been kept there the rest of his life had it not been for the death of Mao in 1979 and an amnesty the Chinese government then granted to him among a fortunate few. Wu says, "I consider myself very lucky to have survived."

In his presentation to the Accuracy in Media luncheon audience, Wu continued his mission describing the basic features and purpose of the laogai.

The laogai have existed since the birth of the People's Republic of China in 1949. Soviet government officials who ran the gulags in the U.S.S.R. aided in the planning, creation, and implementation of the Chinese system. Wu himself spent four and one half years in a camp designed by Soviet officials-a facility that remains in active use today.

Wu described a typical day in a coal-mining camp he spent nine and a half years in. Prisoners worked in 12-hour shifts, from 12 noon to 12 midnight or vice versa. Additionally, prisoners spent one to two hours in transit from their living area to the work site.

The mining itself was done in extremely poor and hazardous conditions, for instance, without any lamps mounted in the mineshafts to help them work. "In coal mines, you hold a light in your mouth and crawl on knee pads to carry the coal car," Wu remembered.

The amount of food each worker received depended on the amount of coal he produced: one cart of coal meant one ticket, and certain numbers of tickets determined the prisoner's status. Each ticket represented a given amount of food with the greater number of tickets equaling larger portions. The prison authorities, Wu explained, would "give you more or less food based on your work output and political views." If a prisoner did not meet his quota he would face penalties ranging from having to continue on after the end of his shift to reduced or non-existent rations or even placement in a punishment cell.

Upon returning from work, prisoners were required to attend political classes. There, along with undergoing political indoctrination, prisoners would be forced to criticize both themselves and each other, an activity that led to mutual distrust among members of the prison's population.

The stated goal of the labor and political classes was to remake each prisoner into a new, truly socialist citizen. Those who refused to respond properly to the reeducation were either hit with some punishment measures or were less likely to be released. Wu says that those of heavily religious orientation and occupation, such as priests and monks, consistently have the longest sentences of prisoners in the camps.

Harry Wu has authored three books on the laogai and, as Executive Director of the Laogai Research Foundation, continues to expose and publicize the human rights abuses of that system.