Laogai, or "reform through labour", is a central feature of the Chinese prison system. In Tibet, thousands of people are detained in laogai camps because of their peaceful resistance to the Chinese occupation, are denied their freedom, and subjected to "thought reform". Brutal violence is widespread inside the laogai, especially in Tibet, and many prisoners have died here - in exile in what can rightly be called "China's Siberia".
The laogai labour reform system is a vast network of 4,0006,000 prison camps stretching across the People's Republic of China, holding an estimated 16-20 million prisoners. In terms of scope, cruelty, and the number of people imprisoned, the laogai equal the concentration camps of Nazi Germany or the gulags of the Soviet Union. They are unique, however, in their use of "thought reform". Inmates in the laogai are not only forced to perform hard labour to atone for their crimes. They are also required to abandon their "incorrect" beliefs and attitudes and conform to the standards set by the Communist Party.
The laogai began to appear in China from 1949, and within five years were placed under firm government regulation: "The reform through labour of counter-revolutionaries and other criminals carried out by labour reform organisations should completely integrate punishment and thought reform, serving the purposes of both production and political education" (Laodong Gaizao Tiaoli [Labour Reform Regulations], September 1954).
From their beginning then, the nature and aim of the laogai has been twofold:
1. Hard labour for anything up to 12 hours each day, both as a form of punishment and as a contribution to the economic growth of the state.
2. Thought reform, through study sessions and endless indoctrination, ultimately requiring the prisoner to surrender his very identity in order to demonstrate his submission to the Communist Party.
This second feature is of particular significance in Tibet. Some 5- 10% of current laogai inmates are officially described as "counter-revolutionaries", those "whose purpose is to overthrow the dictatorship of the proletariat and the socialist system, and to endanger the People's Republic of China" (Criminal Code of the People's Republic of China, Collected Public Security Regulations 1950-79, 1980). In practice, this means political dissidents who have been detained for their criticism of or opposition to the communist regime. Resistance to the Chinese occupation of Tibet, in any shape or form, is regarded as a "counter-revolutionary" offence.
Note: The secrecy which surrounds the laogai makes it all but impossible to obtain accurate data. Most of the figures given here are from the Laogai Research Foundation (run by Harry Wu in the United States).
One of the most chilling features of the laogai system is "forced job placement" (jiuye), a practice governing the release of prisoners who have completed their sentences. In cases where a particular inmate is homeless, deemed to have no prospect of employment, or has been detained in a sparsely inhabited region, he may be forced to remain and continue working in the laogai. Those who have completed their terms but shown no evidence of "genuine reform" are also liable to job placement.
On the whim of the Chinese authorities, then, people who have been imprisoned for their beliefs and convictions, forced to suffer great physical hardship and what can only be described as severe mental torture, may still be held in a detention centre even after their prison terms have expired. Perhaps as many as 8- 10 million inmates of the laogai today are victims of this "forced job placement" - held in a form of permanent internal exile.
Since the founding of the People's Republic of China, one of the functions of the laogai has been to provide free prison labour for large-scale infrastructure projects (eg: "national economic reconstruction" during the 1950s). Prisoners from the laogai were used in road and railway construction, mining works, land reclamation and massive irrigation programmes, especially in the more "backward" regions of the PRC, such as Xinjiang and Tibet.
During the 1960s, the laogai began to expand into all areas of industrial and agricultural production. A laogai is more than just a prison camp, and most have two identities: one as a detention centre and one as a commercial enterprise. Qinghai Province No. l Labour Reform Camp in Xining, for example, is also known as the Qinghu Machine Tool Factory, and Qinghai Province No. l Prison sometimes goes by the name of Gandu Farm.
Under the recent economic modernisation policies of Deng Xiaoping, the laogai have become independent commercial enterprises, responsible for their "own financing, production, sales and cost accounting" (Harry Wu, Laogai: The Chinese Gulag, 1992; p.10). Camps are now expected to make a profit for the state, and this has driven some camp managers to seek joint ventures with foreign companies. In 1989, the Swedish car manufacturer Volvo received an offer from a Chinese representative that the laogai could "provide large numbers of criminals, who have received already basic technical training, as very cheap labour" (from Stephen Mosher, Made in the Chinese Laogai, 1990; p.13).
When in 1949 the Chinese incorporated the Tibetan region of Amdo into the "motherland", renaming it Qinghai Province, this cold and remote plateau was made ready to receive millions of laogai prisoners. There are now 28 recorded laogai farms and factories spread across northern Qinghai, including Haomen Farm, with an area of 30 square kilometres, the huge Tanggemu Farm (Tangkarmo), which is 70km across, and at least five or six major camps in the town of Xining - a virtual "laogai city".
Tanggemu Farm (Tangkarmo), otherwise Qinghai Province No.13 Labour Reform Camp, is a vast prison-farm complex in Gonghe County. The exact number of inmates is difficult to determine; estimates have ranged from 5,000 up to 20,000. Most prisoners in Tangkarmo are engaged in agricultural production: growing rape-seed, vegetables and highland barley.
Qinghai was also marked out to receive prisoners under forced job placement. Many dissidents sent here were not allowed to return to their homes, and instead their families were "encouraged" to resettle with them. Between 20-30% of the provincial population is now made up of laogai inmates alone, not including their families. Delingha Farm, no-longer classed as a prison, holds around 80,000 people.
The aim of this policy was to build up the population of the region, enabling more rapid economic development and therefore bringing material benefits. The actual result has been to increase the proportion of ethnic Chinese in northeast Tibet to such an extent that they have come to outnumber the indigenous population. The laogai have, therefore, played some part in a trend towards the westward migration of the Chinese into Tibet.
The laogai are less extensive in U'Tsang (the Tibet Autonomous Region) than in Amdo, with only 15 camps documented. Some 60-70% of the inmates here are ethnic Tibetan, most of whom have been imprisoned for their belief in Tibetan independence, although religious observance and possession of literature written by the Dalai Lama can also lead to the laogai.
There seems to be more of an emphasis on punishment than reform inside the Tibetan laogai. Survivors have claimed that Tibetan prisoners are often allocated more dangerous or menial tasks, while Chinese inmates are given skilled and semi-skilled jobs to do. Cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and torture are also widespread in Tibetan laogai: there are numerous case studies of men and women who have been humiliated, beaten, and tortured with electric batons. (For further details see People's Republic of China: Repression in Tibet 1987-92, Defying the Dragon, and TIN News Updates.)
Laogai camps in Tibet include Xigaze [Shigatse] Prison, Garza Prison and the infamous Drapchi Prison (where almost 2,000 monks were held after the 1959 National Uprising - 1,400 died from starvation over the following two years), and the Sangyip prison complex in Lhasa (containing around five separate detention facilities).
In recent years the commercial aspect of the laogai has assumed great importance, due to the enthusiasm of the Chinese to offer the produce of the camps for foreign export. Since laogai (and forced job placement) production amounts to slave labour, some countries have looked into enforcing legislation banning the import of laogai produce. In February 1994, for example, the European Parliament proposed a total ban on the sale of laogai goods within the European Union.
Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms have also had an impact on conditions inside the laogai. A broadcast on Tibet TV in late-January (monitored by the BBC) revealed that 90 prisoners in the Tibet Autonomous Region No. l Reform Through Labour Camp had had their sentences reduced as a reward not only for "conscientiously following prison rules" and "truly repenting during their sentences", but also for bringing "considerable economic wealth to the prison and the state."
Given their obvious importance to the Chinese domestic economy, and their growing contribution to export trade (worth at least several hundred million US dollars a year), there is now a pressing need for concerted international action to expose, document and ultimately close down this pernicious system.
All attempts to discuss Tibet are bedevilled by the Chinese redefinition of the country's borders since 1949. Here the term Tibet is used to refer to the three original provinces of U'Tsang, Kham and Amdo (sometimes called Greater Tibet). When the Chinese refer to Tibet they invariably mean the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAJ) which includes only one province, U'Tsang (the TAR was formally inaugurated in 1965). In 1949 the other two provinces, Amdo and Kham, were renamed by the Chinese as parts of China proper and became the province of Qinghai and parts of Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan provinces.