"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.

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.

Criss-crossing China with a U.S. passport from 1991 to 1994 while posing as a U.S. businessman, Wu not only documented, on videotape and in photographs, innumerable Laogai camps, detention centers, and other locations, he also confirmed what others had long suspected: Chinese corporations, in their lust to break into the lucrative U.S. market, were often contracting directly with Laogai labor to produce export products. Working at times with a BBC crew and with hidden cameras, Wu documented on-the-record admissions of slave-labor export from Chinese traders and officials.

He also uncovered a practice, approved by the Chinese government, even more grotesque. Some Chinese hospitals were operating a thriving business selling the body-organs of just-executed convicts. Wu tape-recorded a phone conversation between a Canadian Chinese and an administrator in a hospital in Zhengzhou, where the administrator described driving a surgical van directly to the execution site to pick up kidneys and other organs. "Everything is approved," the administrator went on. "From the legal point of view, once a prisoner has been shot, he no longer exists as a human being." The cadavers would be cremated, the administrator explained, and all that the family would get would be "an urn of ashes." To ensure the smooth running of this lucrative business, police and other officials would have to be wined and dined, he added, to secure their help lifting the just-executed corpses into the surgical van. The hospital administrator insisted that information about the organ transplants be "kept secret from foreigners."

Certainly it should be kept secret from Wu, who is so effective in publicizing both the horrors and the banality of the Laogai -- where else but in China would prisoners be engaged in manufacturing everything from chain hoists to plastic flowers for export to advanced countries? -- that he has embarrassed both Republican and Democratic administrations into confronting the Chinese government repeatedly over Laogai-produced exports. Wu can mix acid with his tears, too. Appearing at a hearing on Laogai before the House Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights in May, he rattled off instance after instance of American corporations' importing Laogai items with neither U.S. protest to China nor legal penalties on the American side of the deal. Referring to the 1992 Memorandum of Understanding between the United States and China, under which China agreed to put an end to Laogai exports to the United States and to permit, supposedly, U.S. Customs officials to visit Chinese prisons and Laogai camps for inspection purposes, Wu dryly noted: "Not only are we allowing the Chinese government to ignore the binding agreements, we are failing to enforce our own laws."

Wu's brashhess got him into serious trouble in 1995, when he was caught trying to slip back into China via Kazakhstan. He was held for 66 days before being summarily tried, convicted, and sent packing on the next plane out of the country. Providence, it seemed, was on his side here too, for it may well have been the Chinese eagerness to have Hillary Clinton attend the U.N. Women's Conference in Beijing that forced their hand in giving up Wu.

Many U.S. corporations heavily engaged in the China business detest Wu for his perennial urge to complicate U.S.-China trade relations by raising matters like the rule of law, common decency towards prisoners, and frankly, morality, justice, and truth. Some genuine China scholars have also sniped at Wu for the mistakes and exaggerations in some of his early reporting. Amazingly, some have even tried to excuse the brutality and lawlessness of China's Laogai on the ground, supposedly, that it works. When Washington Post international economics reporter Paul Blustein argued last May that even in a few U.S. prisons inmates help manufacture export items (true: but they are paid for this, not forced to produce them, and don't have to work up to 20 hours a day), he quoted Georgetown University professor of Asian Legal Studies James Feinerman as saying of the Chinese system, "They have very low rates of recidivism. Who are we to argue with their choices?"

And if the Germans voted for Hitler, who are we to argue with them either?

The essence of the Laogai system is obviously not the mere fact that prisoners are required to work, a phenomenon that occurs in prison systems throughout the world. It is that Laogai from the very beginning of Communist rule in China has been a hideous, ruthless instrument for keeping in power a regime that no one elected, for propping up by force a 19th-century philosophical myth that nobody believes in, and for frightening into silence any individual inclined to speak the truth about these things or anything else that has happened during China's last five decades.

A 1994 Chinese government document tacitly acknowledged what an ugly resonance the term Laogai was beginning to carry around the world by officially replacing it with jianyu, meaning simply "prison." This terminological change, the document indicated, would be "favorable in our international human-rights struggle." The system itself, though, would operate exactly as before. Given China's propensity for furiously trying to suppress any discussion of its record on human rights at international conferences on the ground that its internal policies are no one else's business, one wonders why it bothers with name changes. But of course, appearances always count.

Those who would argue that China's Laogai is no longer at its very worst, or that outsiders should not bother about how common criminals are treated, forget, of course, the cowed people of Tibet. But brutality, torture, sadism, and arbitrariness are no more appropriate for human beings convicted of genuine criminal acts than for those we would consider political idealists.

And it does appear that in some parts of China, the Laogai system is growing -- because it is a profit center for the Communist country. At last May's hearings, Wu provided a Chinese document that discussed the economic development of Jieyang Prison in Guangdong Province. Originally, this Laogai establishment dabbled in tea, fruits, and quarrying (an old convict standby). After Deng Xiaoping's "Open Door" economic policies of the early 1980s, however, the prison diversified into chinaware, rosaries (yes, rosaries), watchbands, mineral water, and artificial Christmas trees. The prison population grew from 700 in 1982 to 3,900 in 1995. Profits soared also. Perhaps following zealously Deng's slogan that "to get rich is glorious," the prison made its first net profit in 1994, and by 1995 it had a net income of $ 14,000. What to do with all of these economic benefits? For the warden, the answer was self-evident: Build seven more prisons with the earnings.

Somehow there always seems to be a chronological gap between the creation in one part of the world of a thuggish apparatus of tyranny and the realization by the rest of the human race of what is going on. The Soviet Gulag began as early as the 1920s; it was merely refined in brutality by Stalin during the following decades. Only when Solzhenitsyn published the first volume of The Gulag Archipelago in the West in 1973 did the structure that kept Soviet power in place acquire a name distilling its very identity. What complicates the situation in China is that there are many more basic freedoms today than there were during the Orwellian nightmare of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution. Perhaps, then, we should just let people go on getting richer in China and the Laogai will simply wither away, much as Marx predicted the Communist state itself eventually would.

That is almost certain not to happen for at least one reason: If Laogai ceased to exist, the authorities in Beijing would no longer be able to suppress the Chinese people's access to historical truth. And if there were freedom of expression, thought, and research in China, the Communists would not remain a day longer in power than it took to organize genuinely free elections. Meanwhile, as the Gulag was in the USSR, Laogai is now home to the true heroes of their country -- men like Wei Jingsheng, a Beijing Zoo electrician who got 15 years in 1978 for advocating democracy and criticizing Deng Xiaoping. Wei was released in 1993, then slapped with another 14 years for having the temerity to hold to his earlier opinions about freedom and truth.

Prisons, of course, there will always be, and they will surely be worse in some parts of the world than in others. But they do not have to be operated with legirons, with thumb-cuffs, with mandatory workshifts that sometimes go almost around the clock, or with an execution rate that is by far the highest in the world. Nor do executions have to be public, as they still frequently are in China, in order to keep recidivism at bay.

If and when Harry Wu returns to his motherland, as he longs to do, he hopes to build a museum dedicated to the Laogai as a remembrance and a warning. " Sometimes people ask me," Wu has said, "What are you fighting for?" And my answer is quite simple. I want to see the word "Laogai" in every dictionary of the world. I want to see Laogai ended."

David Aikman is a veteran foreign correspondent.

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