Beyond the Gulag: Chinese Laogai (pt. 2)

Unlike Laojiao inmates, Laogai criminals are issued clothing. Depending on the locale and its economic situation, the quality of clothing can vary significantly. Some prisoners may receive black or grey while others wear dark red or blue. Also depending on location, the clothing is available in different thicknesses. Commonly stamped on the uniforms are the Chinese characters for fan and lao gai meaning “criminal” and “reform through labor,” respectively. Also issued to the prisoners are a pair of shoes made of rubber or plastic. These minimums do not meet the needs of the prisoners, who must purchase underclothes, socks, hats, and jackets with their meager monthly earnings of 2.5–3 yuan (US$0.37–US$0.44 as of April 11, 2009). Jackets were rare in the Mao era and were commonly made from patches of old blankets rather than from original cloth. Washing clothes was also rare, but clothing supplies in prisons have improved since the mid-Deng-Jiang Era.

Food distribution has varied much through time, similar to its variation across the “over 1,155 documented laogai” camps. One camp near Beijing distributes between 13.5 and 22.5 kg of food per person per month. This is about average. The food consists of sorghum and corn, which are ground into flour and made into bread or gruel. The prisoners of the Beijing camp also receive 3 ounces of cooking oil per month. Every 2 weeks, the prisoners receive “a special meal of pork broth soup and white-flour steamed buns”. Important Chinese holidays, such as New Year’s, National Day, and the Spring Festival, are celebrated with meat dumplings, an exception in an otherwise meatless diet.

Food is distributed by one person per squad, which consists of about 10 people. This prisoner, called the zhiban or “duty prisoner,” delivers the food to the rest of his group in large bowls on a cart. This often involves pushing the cart a great distance to the place where the others are working. Each day prisoners receive gruel, bread, and a watery vegetable soup made from the cheapest vegetables available. Some camps have reported two meals a day, while others allow three. Food is rationed according to rank and productive output, which is believed to provide motivation to work.

During the Mao era, food in prisons was very scarce, not only because of a nationwide famine during the Great Leap Forward (1959–1962), but also because of the harsher rules. Since little food was available, prisoners would scavenge anything they came across while working. Cases were documented of prisoners eating “field mice, crickets, locusts, toads, grapevine worms, grasshoppers, insect larvae and eggs, and poisonous snakes”. Also, many inmates would steal produce from the fields they worked on, smuggling vegetables back to their barracks. In Jiabiangou, Gansu, around 2,500 out of 3,000 prisoners died of starvation between 1960 and 1962, with some survivors resorting to cannibalism.

Nutrition in the camps was a big problem, especially during the early 1950s through the 1960s, in the early years of the PRC (People’s Republic of China). Before the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) took control, hunger was rarely used to control prisoners. Early leaders of the CCP realized the power of withholding food from rebellious prisoners and, until recently, this practice was very common. Since the early 1990s, some camps in the coastal regions of Eastern China have improved the quality and amount of food.

The living quarters, commonly referred to as barracks in most Laogai literature, were relatively primitive. Most had floors made of cement or wood, but some were of only straw and/or earth. The latrine was a bucket, and no furniture was provided. The prisoners slept on the floor in a space 30 cm wide, with 10 people per room. New prisoners were forced to sleep nearest to the latrine while more senior ones slept near the opposite wall.

Baths and showers were very rare and often not mentioned at all in memoirs. The only form of washing was the use of a water basin, which was only slightly less rare. This was ineffective because the entire squad used the same water. Basic essentials, such as a toothbrush and toothpaste, toilet paper, soap, and towels were not provided; prisoners had to spend their wages to acquire them. Prisoners were known to have spread manure, both human and animal, and been required to eat immediately without being able to wash their hands.

The sleeping quarters were surrounded on all sides by a wall. This wall is about 20 feet high and topped with electrical fencing. There were also sentry towers on each corner. Outside this wall was 40 feet of empty space, followed by another wall, similar to the first but larger.

Do Svidaniya, Comrades

Sources Used:



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