The Laogai Research Foundation: Background information when reading Made in China

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Made in China

A Prisoner, an SOS Letter, and the Hidden Cost of America's Cheap Goods

by Amelia Pang

Made in China by Amelia Pang X
Made in China by Amelia Pang
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2021, 288 pages

    Jan 2022, 288 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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The Laogai Research Foundation

This article relates to Made in China

Print Review

Prisoners in the Laogai system sewing products at a labor campIn her debut book, Made in China, Amelia Pang cites the Laogai Research Foundation (LRF) as a source for much of the information she presents about China's Laogai system (pronounced like loud-guy but without the "d"). The organization's website explains:

"The Laogai system is the Chinese network of prisons, factories, and farms designed to reform prisoners through forced labor. The Chinese government uses the Laogai to persecute political dissidents and maintain its dictatorship. Much of the treatment of Laogai prisoners violates internationally accepted norms for detention."

The LRF was founded in 1992 by Harry Wu. Born in 1937 in Shanghai, Wu lived an unremarkable life as a geologist until 1960, when his criticism of the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary led to his being marked as a counterrevolutionary by the Chinese government. He was arrested and sent to a labor camp without trial, where he remained a political prisoner for 19 years working as a forced laborer building roads, mining coal and farming. Upon his release in 1979, he was permitted to teach at China's Geoscience University until he was able to immigrate to the United States in 1985 as an unpaid visiting scholar at UC-Berkeley. His primary source of income at this time was his night job at a doughnut shop.

Wu was deeply disturbed by the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, and was also haunted by his own experiences in the Laogai system. As a result, he vowed to personally expose China's inhumane treatment of its political prisoners. He snuck back into the country several times, clandestinely filming conditions in the prison system — footage that was featured on 60 Minutes and the BBC — and wrote several books documenting his findings. He was caught trying to reenter China under an assumed name in 1995, charged with espionage and sentenced to another 15 years of incarceration. By then, though, he had become well-known, and politicians and human rights organizations from several countries raised enough of an outcry that Wu was freed after 66 days of detention (he had fortunately become a U.S. citizen just the previous year). He died while on vacation in Honduras in 2016 but his legacy lives on.

According to the LRF, there are at least 1,000 labor camp facilities in China incarcerating millions of prisoners. Along with forced labor abuses, it is believed that China executes thousands of prisoners each year and there have also been widespread allegations of organ harvesting. In addition, the Chinese government has recently come under scrutiny for its imprisonment of the Uighurs (a predominantly Muslim Turkic ethnic group from central and eastern Asia) in labor camps as a means of coercing them to assimilate.

Wu established the LRF to "gather information and raise public awareness about human rights violations in China's prison system." With backing from Yahoo!, the organization opened the Laogai Museum in Washington, D.C. to further this same end. The group's biggest contribution may be the Laogai Handbook, a publication updated annually that documents everything known about the camps in China (name, size, number of prisoners, products produced, etc.). In addition, the organization publishes works that discuss human rights abuses and conditions in the country (in both English and Chinese), most of which are available to download at no cost from its website. The LRF also investigates U.S. corporate ties to the Laogai system, publishing information on those that import products manufactured using forced labor. Finally, the organization awards two grants annually, the first to U.S. non-governmental charities that support human rights-related programs in China, the second to individuals who have "contributed to and suffered due to promoting democracy, freedom, and human rights inside China."

Prisoners at the Shayang Farm labor camp, courtesy of the Laogai Museum

Filed under Society and Politics

Article by Kim Kovacs

This "beyond the book article" relates to Made in China. It originally ran in February 2021 and has been updated for the January 2022 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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