The Magazine


Sep 29, 1997, Vol. 3, No. 03 • By DAVID AIKMAN
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The system was set up by the Communists in the early 1950s, primarily to deal with the millions of real and suspected opponents of China's newly established regime. It had two main objectives. One was identical to that of the Soviet Gulag: the use of coerced labor for ambitious state projects for which ordinary workers could never have been found. In the 1950s much of Manchuria was reclaimed for agriculture and industry by the labor of Laogai inmates, and in other parts of the nation coal mines were developed, canals dug, and railroads carved out of mountainsides by whole brigades and divisions of Laogai workers.

But the second objective, often cited by the Communist authorities as more crucial than the first, was actually far more sinister. It was not enough, the Chinese Communists believed, for a prisoner to admit his guilt. He (or she) had to be morally and spiritually broken down through "thought reform" (often referred to as "brainwashing") -- sessions of relentless interrogation, orchestrated emotional bullying by fellow-inmates, and sometimes the torture of sleep deprivation -- to the point where he actually felt guilty for the crimes attributed to him by the regime. According to Jean Pasqualini, a Corsican-Chinese whose 1973 book Prisoner of Mao, the first of its type, remains a classic account of the Laogai experience, the aim of the prison authorities was "not so much to make you invent nonexistent crimes, but to make you accept your ordinary life, as you led it, as rotten and sinful and worthy of punishment." Mao Zedong's police, Pasqualini noted, became extraordinarily adept at inducing such pitiful emotional breakdowns in their prisoners. In fact, the handful of American GIs who defected to China after having been prisoners during the Korean War had all experienced the brainwashing experience of "thought reform."

In Mao Zedong's increasingly paranoid hunt for political oppositionists within China during the 1950s and '60s, one cruel political campaign followed another: against "counterrevolutionaries" or "rightists" much of the time. Probably the most dramatic increase in the Laogai population came between 1958 and 1960, when hundreds of thousands of suspected rightists, sometimes simply students who had criticized something the Russians had done, were rounded up and subjected to "thought reform," then to the nightmare without end that constituted the Laogai system. Many of them simply perished in the camps, part of a Laogai death toll that by Wu's calculations may have reached 15 million since 1949. Others survived, but remained in legal limbo for the rest of their lives.

Unlike Gulag inmates, most of whom were permitted to go free if they survived their terms, many Laogai survivors never actually go home. Until Deng Xiaoping came to power in 1978, about 90 percent of all Laogai inmates who completed their terms were compelled to work for the rest of their lives in locations and at jobs assigned to them by the authorities. One of the few improvements in the Laogai system in the past few years, according to some sources, has been the reduction of forced-job-placement, which now reportedly affects fewer than half of Laogai inmates.

Much of our knowledge of Laogai is due to the work of Wu Hongda, or Harry Wu, as he likes to be called in the United States. Born to a wealthy Shanghai banking family in 1937, Wu had no interest in politics at all, but was rash enough to criticize the Communist authorities at student-organized political meetings. For that he was denounced as a rightist in 1960 at the age of 23 and packed off to 12 different Laogai camps for the next 19 years. After his release and return to Shanghai, he spent four years demanding a passport from the authorities and trying to secure a visa from skeptical U.S. consular authorities to enter the United States. By chance, an article by Wu about a French geological drilling device had been translated into French in Paris and read by an American who taught at the University of California at Berkeley. The professor invited Wu to Berkeley as a visiting lecturer in the fall of 1985. Wu was 48 years old.

He arrived in California with $ 40 in his pocket and was so poor that for a while he slept at night on benches in People's Park or in bus stations. But providence seemed to be with him. People kept wanting to know more about his Laogai experiences, so he told them, astonishing American-born Chinese who apparently had never heard the term. In 1988 the Hoover Institution got him started with a grant to study the topic, from which came his first book, Laogai: The Chinese Gulag, in 1991.