Laogai Archipelago

Laogai_Map (By Marco L Based On Information By Wu)

Although it is hard to acknowledge the lives of all who are worthy of being remembered for one reason or another [1], at times a life ends that is so striking that it requires notice. Such was the life of Harry Wu, who was born into some privilege as part of a wealthy landowning family in Shanghai, had dramatic ups and downs over the course of his life, working as a slave laborer for many years in the Chinese Laogai and being detained later on as an American citizen as a troublemaker when he sought to visit China in 1995, all the way to his death a couple of days ago while on vacation with his family in Honduras. In his life, Harry Wu sought to serve as the Chinese equivalent to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose Gulag Archipelago won him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970. While no such Nobel Prize was forthcoming for Wu, his efforts have served to inform the rest of the world about China’s pervasive use of slave labor in seeking international competitiveness in trade and for the odious purposes of reeducation through torture [2].

In examining the Laogai Archipelago, let us first look at their spread across China. An examination of the map demonstrates that the sites of the Chinese Laogai are focused either in the southern part of the country (in Yunan) or in the coastal and riverine areas of China’s core. In stark contrast to the Soviet Union, China’s prison slave labor camps are rare in the remote regions of Inner Mongolia, Tibet, and the Tarim Basin of the northwest, and their neighboring areas among China’s rural hinterlands. The geography of these camps suggests that they are found near population centers and not coincidentally near the areas of trade, with clusters of camps near each other in these areas and a low density of camps in more sparsely populated areas. If you want to know where China puts its political prisoners, it is where its own people are, albeit behind bars, and where the products made by those prisoners can be brought to the world market most readily. And let us not underestimate the importance of transferring products to market—Chinese political prisoners serve as the source of organ “donations,” a quarter of China’s tea exports, sixty-percent of China’s rubber vulcnanizing chemicals, and large numbers of about 200 or so products as diverse as grain and steel pipes.

What is the significance of China’s Laogai camps in the first place, though? Laogai comes from the Chinese expression reform through labor, in which those who are considered to be enemies of the state are put into prison for long periods of time and systematically denied human rights and exploited for the interests of the Chinese government. This has, not surprisingly attracted a great deal of criticism. On the one hand, people like Harry Wu and others have estimated that the Laogai camps have led to the deaths of between fifteen and thirty million Chinese people, and that about 7 million people are currently being held in such camps, while on the other hand, some researchers, most notably James D. Seymour and Richard Anderson, have argued that the people being imprisoned in the laogai camps have committed what would be regarded as crimes in the West, like being a Christian or having politically unpopular beliefs honestly expressed, perhaps. One wonders, if imprisoning millions of people and having killed millions of people is not bad enough for a prison system to be regarded as the Chinese equivalent of a Sovet gulag, one wonders how bad conditions would have to be to reach that level.

The Chinese government itself has stated the following about the Laogai system: “Our economic theory hold the human being is the most fundamental productive force. Except for those who must be exterminated physically out of political consideration, human beings must be utilized as productive forces, with submissiveness as the prerequisite. The Laogai system’s fundamental policy is ‘Forced Labor as a means, while Thought Reform is our basic aim [3].” It is perhaps not without coincidence that this form of slave labor camp has been particularly common in Communist countries, whether one examines the reeducation camps of Vietnam or the Soviet Union’s notorious gulags. In all such cases a government has claimed to rule on behalf of the people, but in the end has resorted to institutionalized systems of prison and slavery to exploit those it claims to serve, demanding ideological purity and arguing that their abuses are necessary to preserve the public order and to quarantine from the general population those whose beliefs are hostile to the worldviews of governments. Again, while our nation is tending in a direction where it might be possible for people to be concerned of such camps being a reality in the United States, such a concern exists about the left-leaning aspects of our culture with the toleration of everything except for that which comports to the righteous ways of God.

Is there something intrinsic about left-wing political movements that seek to re-educate people and, if possible, brainwash them into following the party line? Right-wing dictatorships, it should be noted, have shown no shortage of cruelty, but while few would want to be subject to the tender mercies of Pinochet or Thailand’s junta or other leaders of such ilk, one would have no doubt that whatever cruel horrors or years lost to the locust that would result from ending up in prison or, worse, disappeared and left in some sort of unmarked grave would be considered as punitive punishments. There would be no intent to reeducate enemies of the state, merely eliminate or exile them altogether. It seems to be left-wing governments that desire not only to exploit or imprison political opponents, as is a temptation for any prickly people of any political worldview, but to get them to admit that they are wrong. How can one argue with that sort of foolish obstinance?

[1] See, for example:

Posts in memory of the dead

[2] See, for example:

Philip P. Pan. “China’s Laborers Pay Price for Market Reforms”. Retrieved August 20, 2008.

Buffard, Anne-Laure (November 14, 2008). “D.C. museum 1st in U.S. to look at Beijing’s prison system”. The Washington Times.

Forced Labor in China.” Congressional-Executive Commission on China.

Chapman, Michael. “Chinese slaves make goods for American malls”, . Human Events, 07/04/97, Vol. 53, Issue 25.

[3] Wu, Harry, “The Other Gulag”, National Review, 4/5/1999, Vol. 51, Issue 6

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in History, International Relations, Musings and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Laogai Archipelago

  1. Pingback: Book Review: The Origins Of American Slavery | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Book Review: Finding Your Voice | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: Book Review: Laogai | Edge Induced Cohesion

  4. Pingback: Book Review: Gulag: A History | Edge Induced Cohesion

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