The Magazine


Sep 29, 1997, Vol. 3, No. 03 • By DAVID AIKMAN
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"I have spent 33 years of my 64-year-old life in Chinese prisons and Laogai labor camps in Tibet. During those years I yearned for a moment such as this one." Palden Gyatso, a Tibetan nationalist who escaped from Tibet in 1992, finally got his moment two years ago. He was testifying, along with other survivors of Laogai -- China's Gulag -- before a hearing of the House Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights in Washington in the spring of 1995. Gyatso described being suspended in the air and having icy water thrown on his body, being beaten repeatedly, being shackled for months at a time in leg irons, being burned with boiling water and given shocks by that unique creation of Chinese Communist technology, the electrified police baton. (This implement is sometimes misleadingly labeled a cattle prod, but it was designed solely to inflict pain on human beings and is unobtainable in China for non-police use.)

He explained how inmates of Tibet's Drapchi Prison in April 1991 had tried to present to U.S. ambassador James Lilley, visiting the prison, a petition protesting the torture and barbaric conditions. With Lilley still in the prison, the petition was snatched out of their hands. After he had gone, all of those who had tried to present it were subjected to brutal beatings. For Gyatso, that was almost routine. The year before, a Tibetan prison guard had asked him why he was back in prison. Gyatso told him his crime had been to put up posters calling for Tibetan independence. "I will give you Tibetan independence," the guard replied, prodding Gyatso's body several times with the electric baton and finally jamming it into his mouth, knocking out most of his teeth and causing Gyatso to pass out.

Other former Laogai inmates told similar stories at the hearings. There was Cai Zhongxian, a Roman Catholic priest ordained in 1940 who was held without trial in the Shanghai Detention Center for seven years after his arrest in 1953. Finally sentenced in 1960 to a 15-year Laogai sentence, Cai survived starvation largely by being able to catch and eat frogs, snakes, and rats. But his sentence, plus the seven years prior to that in detention, was not enough for the Beijing authorities. Like the overwhelming majority of Laogai inmates on their release during the first 30 years or so of Communist rule in China, he was compelled to stay on as a jiuye, or "forced-job-placement" worker, at a factory in Nanchang. Another 11 years.

That still wasn't the end of Cai's Laogai troubles. Arrested yet again, he was sentenced to another 10 years for trying to fulfill his pastoral duties as a priest. It was only when the Communist authorities decided on a " goodwill" gesture to Cardinal Jaime Sin, who was visiting China in 1988, that Cai was released for the last time. This dangerous international counterrevolutionary was now 81 and had spent 33 of those years either in detention, in a Laogai camp, or in the imprisonment without end of forced-job- placement. Finally permitted to leave China, Cai retired to New York and recently died at the age of 90.

Laogai. The term doesn't exactly trip off the tongue, the way Gulag now does. Ask even a well- informed American what it means, and he probably won't have a clue. Ask a Beltway insider and he or she may recall merely that it has something to do with China. But Laogai not only has something to do with China -- it has everything to do with China. In the view of Harry Wu, founder of the Laogai Research Foundation and the foremost U.S. campaigner against Laogai, it is "the central human rights issue in China today." And yet it is more than that too. "Laogai," says Wu, "is not simply a prison system, it is a political tool for maintaining the Communist party's totalitarian rule."

Like the Russian word "Gulag," Laogai (rhymes with "Mao Sky") is an acronym. It stands for laodong gaizao, or "Reform Through Labor." Laogai is a vast system of camps, detention centers, reeducation-through-labor institutions, and prison factories throughout China. There are, according to Wu, an estimated 1,100 of these institutions in which prisoners are compelled to work under conditions, essentially, of slave labor. He estimates that over five decades about 50 million Chinese have been through the Laogai. Today Wu estimates the Laogai population at 6-8 million.