The Laogai camps were infested with many types of pests. Bed bugs were so numerous that at night they sometimes moved in swarms. This behavior earned them the Laogai nickname of tanks or “tanke”. They sucked the blood of the prisoners, leaving little red welts all over their bodies. These welts itched, and severe cases led to inmates scratching their skin raw, leading to dangerous infections. Another common pest was lice; some prisoners were known to eat them to supplement their meager diet. No insecticide or pesticides were used in the camps. The prisoner Zhang Xianliang wrote that “the parasites on a single inmate’s underpants would be as numerous as the words on the front page of a newspaper”. He noted fleas would be so numerous that they would “turn his quilt purplish black with their droppings”. Roundworms were also a common threat to the prisoners’ health, especially in laogai farms, where human excrement was used as fertilizer.
Along with a poor diet came many diet-related diseases: beriberi, edema, and scurvy were the most common, due to lack of vitamins. Other health problems caused by the lack of healthy food included severe diarrhea or constipation from the lack of oil and fiber. These two were often left untreated and, added to the continuous strain of 12 hours of manual labor, weakened the immune system. Eventually, death followed many of these conditions. Two diseases rampant among the populations of these camps were tuberculosis and hepatitis. Highly contagious, these were also often left untreated until it was too late. Each morning, the cadre of the camp decided who was sick enough to stay in the barracks and miss the day of work. Many prisoners were forced to work when they were ill. Mental illness used to be very common during the Mao era, when prisoners had to spend 2 hours each evening being indoctrinated. The brainwashing that occurred over the amount of time people were imprisoned could be so intense that they were driven to insanity and, in many cases, suicide.
Forced labor defined Laogai prison camps. The following is a description of an average day in the prison camp Tuanhe Farm by Harry Wu. He spent 19 years in a Laogai prison camp like this one:
“Prisoners are roused from bed at 5:30 a.m., and at 6:00 a.m. the zhiban from the kitchen wheels in a cart with tubs of corn gruel and cornbread … at 7:00 a.m. the company public security cadre (captain) comes in, gathers all the prisoners together, and authorizes any sick prisoners to remain in the barracks. Once at the worksite, the captain delegates production responsibilities … At lunchtime the zhiban arrives pulling a handcart with a large tub of vegetable soup, two hunks of cornbread for each prisoner, and a large tube of drinking water … after about 30 minutes, work is resumed until the company chief announces quitting time in the evening. Generally the prisoners return to the barracks at about 6:30 p.m. Upon return it is once again a dinner of cornbread, corn gruel, and vegetable soup. At 7:30 p.m., the 2-hour study period begins… At 9:30 p.m., no matter what the weather, all prisoners gather together outside the barracks for roll call and a speech from the captain. At around 10:00 p.m., everyone goes to bed. During the night no lights are allowed and no one is allowed to move about. One must remain in one’s assigned sleeping place and wait until 5:30 a.m. the next morning before getting up, when the whole cycle begins again.”
Quota filling was a big part of the inmates’ lives in Laogai camps. Undershooting or overshooting the target productivity governs their quality of life. Not making the number may result in solitary confinement or loss of food privileges. Generally, food rations are cut by 10–20% if a worker fails to meet the standard. Some prisoners excel and are able to do more than what is required of them. They sometimes receive extra or better quality food. It has been argued that this extra food is not worth the extra calories burned to be more productive, so many prisoners choose to do the minimum with minimum effort, thereby saving as much energy as possible.
Investigators from the Laogai Research Foundation have confirmed sites where prisoners mine asbestos and other toxic chemicals with no protective gear, work with batteries and battery acid with no protection for their hands, tan hides while standing naked in vats filled 3-feet deep with chemicals used for the softening of animal skins, and work in improperly run mining facilities where explosions and other accidents are a common occurrence.
Do Svidaniya, Comrades