Laogai: "Reform Through Labor" in China
by Ramin Pejan*


Laogai, which translates from Mandarin to mean "reform through labor," is the Chinese system of labor prison factories, detention centers, and re-education camps. Mao Zedong created the system in the early 1950s, modeling it after the Soviet Gulag, as a way to punish and reform criminals in a manner useful to the state, producing thought reform and economic gain. The Laogai system is still in place today and continues to deprive individuals of basic human rights. An individual's mere association with groups unpopular with the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) government can result in the individual being sent to a reform institution in the Laogai system, through a process that deprives the person of due process rights. Once inside the Laogai, prisoners are subject to cruel and degrading treatment and oftentimes torture. These human rights abuses violate both Chinese and international human rights norms.

The Laogai System

The Laogai system consists of three distinct categories of reform: convict labor (Laogai), re-education through labor (Laojiao), and forced job placement (Jiuye). The Laogai Research Foundation, a non-governmental organization (NGO) in the United States, estimates that there are almost 1,100 labor institutions in the Laogai system with an estimated 6.8 million inmates.

Laogai, the most common type of reform, exists for prisoners convicted of crimes under the Chinese Criminal Code. Article 41 of the criminal code states that anyone sentenced for a crime "who is able to work, shall undergo reform through labor."

The PRC uses Laojiao to detain individuals it feels are a threat to national security or it considers unproductive. Individuals in Laojiao may be detained for up to three years. Because those in Laojiao have not committed crimes under PRC law, they are referred to as "personnel" rather than prisoners and they are not entitled to judicial procedure. Instead, individuals are sent to the Laojiao following administrative sentences dispensed by local public security forces. This vague detainment policy allows the PRC to avoid allegations that the individual's arrest was politically motivated and to assert that they were arrested for reasons such as "not engaging in honest pursuits" or "being able-bodied but refusing to work."

Finally, Jiuye is used by the PRC to keep individuals under government controls after the person's release from a labor camp. The Jiuye requires former detainees of the Laogai to live and work in specifically assigned locations. Under this policy, 70 percent of prisoners are held within the prison camp to continue working after completing their sentences.

Each Laogai camp has both a camp name and a public name. For example, the Shanghai Municipal Prison is also called the Shanghai Printing, Stationery Factory. Financial information on 99 forced labor camp enterprises collected by Dun and Bradstreet was released on June 30, 1999. According to this data, the 99 camps had total annual sales of U.S.$842.7 million. These camps represent only 9 percent of the roughly 1,100 known Laogai camps. The extremely cheap cost of labor in the Laogai system creates a very low-priced, competitive product to export, providing the PRC additional incentive to continue its use of the Laogai system.

Conditions in the Laogai System

Much of the information about the Laogai system comes from former prisoners, who describe camp conditions as inhumane. Former prisoner Tong Li stated: "The worst incident occurred after I refused to work more than the eight hour maximum day mandated by Chinese Law. At that time I was beaten by a group of inmates instructed by the police guards in the labor camp. I was not allowed to talk with other detainees in that labor camp. I had no access to newspapers, television or radio. My food rations were minimal." Other prisoners have testified to similar treatment.

According to Harry Wu, the Executive Director of the Laogai Research Foundation, prisoners in both the Laogai and the Laojiao are given only one uniform and one pair of rubber and plastic gloves each year. They are fed three times a day, but the quantity of food depends on their daily performance and the quality of the food is poor, consisting mostly of corn gruel and corn bread. Prisoners often labor 12 hours per day or more, working at farms, mines, and different types of prison factories that manufacture a wide array of products for foreign and domestic markets.

After completing the workday, inmates usually have a two-hour study period where they must read and listen to communist teachings. The camps are often overcrowded and it is common for two prisoners to sleep in the same bed and for 200 prisoners to share six showers within a half-hour period of clean-up time. While Laogai system officials claim that all prisoners have the right to prompt medical treatment, Human Rights in China, a Chinese-American NGO that investigates Laogai conditions, reports that proper, adequate, and timely medical care is a serious problem. In particularly dangerous situations, detainees work with toxic chemicals and are rarely allowed to wash their hands, even before eating. In sum, the conditions of the Laogai camps are hazardous and debilitating.

Applicable Chinese Law

Although Article 35 of the Chinese Constitution guarantees Chinese citizens "freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration," the PRC has curtailed these freedoms on several occasions. For example, on October 25, 1998, China's State Council promulgated two sets of regulations, one entitled Regulations on the Registration and Management of Social Groups, and the other, Provisional Regulations on the Registration and Management of People-Organized Non-Enterprise Units. The new laws had the following effects: (1) the number of legal requirements and time necessary for establishing a social group were increased; (2) Chinese authorities were allowed more leeway to forbid the registration of selected groups; (3) the involvement of people in social groups who have had their political rights removed was forbidden; (4) the controls that can be placed on groups by their "official government sponsors" were increased; and (5) government funding provided for new groups was limited. It should be noted that even prior to the implementation of the new set of regulations, Chinese law required all independent groups to register with the Chinese government. These regulations result in the PRC denying its citizens their right to association and allow the government to detain its citizens in the Laogai under unconstitutional terms.

In addition to promulgating regulations that conflict with Chinese constitutional provisions, the PRC also crafted its criminal code to allow the detention of individuals for an undefined array of activities it considers politically threatening. For example, in 1997, the PRC redrafted its 1979 criminal code, broadening the scope of what constitutes a counterrevolutionary crime. Under the 1979 criminal code, counterrevolutionary crimes were defined as "all acts endangering the Peoples Republic of China committed with the goal of overthrowing the political power of the dictatorship." When the crime was renamed "endangering state security" under the 1997 criminal code, an explanation of what constituted endangerment was not provided. As a result, the PRC may now criminalize activities it interprets as threatening state security.

The PRC also broadened Article 91 of the 1979 criminal code, which previously mandated that an individual could be found guilty of collusion when he or she conspired "with foreign states to harm the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and security of the PRC." Article 102(1) of the 1997 code broadens this crime by adding "foreign institutions, organizations, and individuals" to accompany "foreign states" as entities with which one cannot collude. This broadening of the scope of crimes, along with the ambiguous language of the code, allows the PRC to regulate more public activities, and gives courts wide latitude to interpret a multitude of activities as criminal activities and detain more people in the Laogai system.

The conditions of Laogai camps are also in non-compliance with policy statements issued by the PRC, such as the White Paper on Human Rights, an official document issued by the PRC government in November 1991 setting forth the PRC's human rights policy. Although the White Paper guarantees prisoners the right to personal dignity and personal security, the U.S. State Department has indicated that the Laogai is not in compliance with these provisions. In its China Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1998, the U.S. State Department noted that conditions in Laogai penal institutions for both political prisoners and common criminals are harsh and degrading. The report goes on to note that prisoners are tortured with pain inflicting devices such as cattle prods and electrodes. This treatment clearly denies prisoners their rights to dignity and personal security as set forth in the PRCs White Paper on Human Rights. The White Paper also states that convicts shall not work more than eight hours per day and should receive the same amount of food that ordinary employees of state-run industries receive when doing similar work. According to the Laogai Research Foundation, however, many ex-prisoners testify that they worked 12 to 14-hour days, and consumed a very poor diet lacking important nutrients.

Violation of International Law and Standards

In addition to not complying with the PRC's domestic standards, the Laogai system is also in violation of international law. Both the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) include the rights to due process and freedom from cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. In addition, the Convention Against Torture prohibits torture in all cases.

Violations of the UDHR and ICCPR. All of the member states of the United Nations, including the PRC, have adopted the UDHR. The PRC signed the ICCPR in October 1998, but has not ratified it; however, 94 countries have ratified the ICCPR, supporting the position that particular provisions in the document, such as due process rights and freedom from cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, are customary international law. For this reason, the PRC is arguably bound to uphold these standards.

Both the UDHR and the ICCPR provide for the right to due process, including an adequate defense. Article 11(1) of the UDHR states that an individual has the right to "a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence." Article 14 of the ICCPR provides that anyone who has a criminal charge brought against them shall "have adequate time and facilities for the preparation of [their] defense and to communicate with counsel of [their] own choosing." Article 14(3)(b) of the ICCPR adds that all persons charged shall have adequate time and facilities for the preparation of their defense, and shall have the right to communicate with counsel of their choosing. Although Laogai detainees are given a trial, they may be appointed defense counsel only seven days before. This short time before trial often does not allow for the preparation of an adequate defense. Moreover, appointed counsel are usually agents of the state and rarely present evidence on behalf of their clients. Detainees are not entitled to the presumption of innocence and may not be given an opportunity to present evidence in their own defense. Article 14(2) of the ICCPR and Article 11(1) of the UDHR states that everyone charged with a criminal offense shall have the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty according to the law.

Furthermore, Laojiao detainees receive no judicial process. Those who come before Laojiao administrative boards are not provided the right of counsel or the right to have the legitimacy of their detentions reviewed by a judicial authority. In addition, Article 9 of the ICCPR and Article 9 of the UDHR prohibit arbitrary arrest or detention. Laojiao detainees, however, are oftentimes arbitrarily detained without being accused of a criminal offense.

The ICCPR and UDHR also address standards of treatment for prisoners. Article 7 of the ICCPR and Article 5 of the UDHR both state: "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." Article 10 of the ICCPR adds that "[a]ll persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person." Acts occurring inside the Laogai system that violate these provisions include excessive amounts of work, poor nourishment, and lack of proper medical care. Former prisoners' testimonies describe a wide variety of degrading activity that takes place in Laogai camps. For example, instances have been reported where prison guards beat and starve inmates for stealing small amounts of food or for hiding Western "democratic" books.

Violations of the Convention Against Torture. Although China ratified the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) in 1985, it made a declaration under Article 28 of the CAT that it would not recognize the competence of the Committee Against Torture, the UN body that oversees compliance with the CAT, to investigate allegations of widespread torture within its boundaries. Nonetheless, by ratifying the remaining provisions of the CAT, the PRC is bound to follow the convention. Article 1 of the CAT defines torture as "any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person." Under Article 1, the use of torture is prohibited as either a means of punishment or intimidation. Although Article 1 does not apply to pain and suffering arising from, inherent in, or incidental to lawful sanctions, the article still applies to the Laogai system because the PRC currently detains people in the Laojiao despite no formal judicial sanctions being levied against them. When Laojiao "personnel" are treated as regular prisoners and subjected to severe pain or suffering, the PRC violates the CAT. The U.S. State Department, personal testimonies from former prisoners of the Laogai, and organizations such as the Laogai Research Foundation have documented torturous treatment in the Laojiao system.

Ending the Laogai System

Aside from the PRC's obligations to eliminate the Laogai system, nations other than the PRC should stop importing products manufactured with forced labor in the Laogai. The United States is one country that is currently making an effort to stop importing such products. In 1992, for example, the governments of the United States and PRC signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) prohibiting trade in prison labor products. Two years later, the two countries signed a Statement of Cooperation which detailed specific working procedures for the implementation of the MOU. Unfortunately, enforcement of the MOU thus far has proved largely unsuccessful. In 1998, for example, U.S. customs officials attempted to pursue eight standing requests to visit sights they suspected of manufacturing prison labor products. The Chinese Ministry of Justice, however, refused access on the grounds that Laogai inmates are not technically prisoners, and thus the MOU did not apply.

There are currently a number of organizations that are actively campaigning against the continued use of the Laogai system and many critics also have requested that the United Nations establish a special tribunal to investigate Laogai activities. Harry Wu and the Laogai Research Foundation are leading this fight. Wu has returned to China numerous times in order to document the current conditions and continued abuses occurring in the Laogai system.


The Laogai system continues to be a major concern to many human rights organizations and countries around the world. The manner in which the PRC places individuals in the Laogai system and the conditions of the camps violate Chinese law and international standards. One way in which Laogai can be countered is by further educating the international community about abuses that take place in the system. On September 17-19, 1999, for example, the Laogai Research Foundation presented a conference, "Voices from Laogai," at American University in Washington, D.C. The conference included numerous survivor testimonies. Only through continued perseverance by the international community and organizations such as the Laogai Research Foundation will the Laogai system ever come into compliance with international human rights norms.

*Ramin Pejan is a J.D. candidate at the Washington College of Law and an articles editor for the Human Rights Brief.