Book Review: Laogai

Laogai:  The Chinese Gulag, by Hongda Harry Wu

Admittedly, the Laogai is far less famous than its Russian (gulag) and German (concentration camp) cousins, although it is something I have pondered about from time to time [1].  The author of this deeply interesting and very harrowing work has the best sort of credibility to write about the prison camp system in China–he was a prisoner/slave there for nineteen years and understandably wanted to bring it to the attention of a wider audience once he found freedom and was able to leave China for the safe haven of the United States.  In less able hands a book like this one could have been a real chore to read, but the author’s credibility and his attention to detail help this book read less like a personal screed and more like an impassioned attempt by a man to expose the cruel and unjust system that took so much of his life away and that contributes to the well-being of a corrupt Chinese communist government that he author understandably does not want to see helped in any way.  If you want to understand the dark underbelly of the Chinese economy, this is a very important book to read.

Even with all of its appendices, this is a book that is just over 200 pages if you read the whole thing–and it would be wise to do so.  This book is organized in a somewhat unusual fashion, with its introduction taking up more than 50 pages as the author discusses the organization and distribution of labor reform camps, the population and political function of these camps, and the place of the camps in the economic system of China (1).  After that there are three chapters that discuss different elements of the Chinese labor camp system, with one chapter looking at the general development of labor camps, the objects of imprisonment, living conditions and punishment of those camps (2), another chapter looking at the Chinese goal of reeducation through labor in theory and practice (3), and another chapter examining the forced job placement of people once they have been released from prison in labor camps where they had worked as prisoners to keep people as a permanent underclass (4).  After this there is a chapter about labor reform under Deng Xiaoping and some recent changes in labor reform policy in China (5).  After all of this the book contains five appendices on information on the 990 labor camps the author was aware of, the commodities they produce for China as of the book’s writing, a more in-depth look at three sample Laogaidui, the unwillingness of Volvo to take advantage of an offer by the Chinese government for slave laborers to build automobile parts, and a list of labor reform enterprises that have become particularly important to China’s economy.

Obviously, a book like this is not designed for pleasant reading, but it manages to be unpleasant in very worthwhile ways.  For one, the author himself is an insider about Chinese labor camps, having been in them for nearly two decades as a result of having made some critical comments about the Chinese regime as a university student during a period of abortive efforts at encouraging a hundred flowers of freedom to speak one’s mind among Chinese citizens.  The author details the casual cruelty that takes place due to prison snitches, low amounts of food, a great deal of cruelty on the part of guards, and the fear of family members of many prisoners to associate with imprisoned relatives because of the scrutiny this would result in.  The author also shows a couple of examples of slave/prisoner-made products that have been sold in the United States, including a bottle of wine and some black tea.  The author’s restraint in terms of talking about the horrors of his existence in these slave labor camps only makes the statistical and factual tone of the book more chilling.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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