During the 1950s and 1960s, Chinese prisons, similar to organized factories, contained large numbers of people who were considered too critical of the government or “counter-revolutionary”. However, many people arrested for political or religious reasons were released in the late 1970s at the start of the Deng Xiaoping reforms.
In the 21st century, critics have said that Chinese prisons produce products for sale in foreign countries, with the profits going to the PRC government. Products include everything from green tea to industrial engines to coal dug from mines. According to James D. Seymour and Richard Anderson, the products made in laogai camps comprise an insignificant amount of mainland China’s export output and gross domestic product. They argue that the use of prison labor for manufacturing is not in itself a violation of human rights, and that most prisoners in Chinese prisons are serving time for what are generally regarded as crimes in the West. The West’s criticism of the laogai is based not only on the export of products made by forced labor, but also on the claims of detainees being held for political or religious violations, such as leadership of unregistered Chinese House Churches. While the laogai has attracted widespread criticism for the poor conditions in the prisons, Seymour and Anderson claim that reports are exaggerated, stating that “even at its worst, the laogai is not, as some have claimed, “the Chinese equivalent of the Soviet gulag”.
Structural changes following the downfall of socialism have reduced tax revenue to local governments, increasing pressure for local governments to supplement their income from elsewhere. At the same time, prisoners usually do not make a good workforce. The products manufactured by prison labor in China are of extremely low quality and have become unsalable on the open market in competition with products made by non-imprisoned paid labor.
Harry Wu has written books, including Troublemaker and Laogai, that describe the system from the 1960s to the 1990s. Wu spent 19 years, from 1960 to 1979, as a prisoner in these camps, for having criticized the government while he was a young college student. After almost starving to death in the camps, he eventually moved to the United States as a visiting scholar in 1985.
In 2008, the Laogai Research Foundation, a human rights NGO located in Washington, DC, estimated that approximately 1,045 laogai facilities were operating in China, and contained an estimated 500,000 to 2 million detainees.
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