The Tragic History of China’s Secret Labor Camps

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“In China, they want you to become [a]new socialist person, and that’s the purpose of the labor camps,” says Harry Wu, a survivor of the prison system known as “Laogai,” which means “reform through labor.”

“The major job in the prison camp is to survive, to find food, that’s it,” says Wu.

When the Communist Party of China came to power in 1956, Mao invited Soviet state experts into the country to develop a Gulag-style prison network to suppress “counter-revolutionaries” and torture political opposition.

At the age of 23, Wu was imprisoned in the Laogai system simply because his father was a banker. While the official numbers are a state secret, at the height of Mao’s reign, Wu estimates there were “1,000 labor camps and probably more than 40 million people in the prison camps.”

After Mao died in 1979, the Laogai system was gradually dismantled and most political prisoners, including Wu, were released.

By 2013, the Chinese government officially turned away from using labor camps as a tactic of “re-education.” But last year, a report by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission expressed “legitimate doubts” that China has entirely stopped the practice of sending prisoners to labor camps.

After he immigrated to America, Wu opened the Laogai Museum to honor the victims and to spread awareness of the ongoing human rights abuse by the Communist Party of China. Wu is also the founder of the Laogai Research Foundation.

The Laogai Museum is located in Washington D.C., but Wu hopes someday to relocate it to China.

“One thing is very, very simple: No one in China believes communism is their future,” he says. When it will be entirely gone, however, “we do not know.”

Produced by Joshua Swain and Robert Mariani.

Approximately 4 minutes.