- The Washington Times - Friday, November 14, 2008

“Laogai,” a contraction of two Chinese words, literally means “reform through labor.”

Sitting in the Washington office of the Laogai Research Foundation he created 16 years ago, Harry Wu speaks with intensity but softness about China’s belief that prisons can create “a new socialist man.”

At 71, the famous Chinese dissident and naturalized American citizen opened the Laogai Museum in downtown Washington this week, calling it “the first museum in the U.S. to address human rights in China.”

“In 1974, Solzhenitsyn made the word ‘gulag,’ which was not a proper word but an acronym of four letters. It means the violence of Stalin’s regime. I want the word ‘laogai’ to embody the repression of human rights in China,” he explains.

Russian dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn publicized the Soviet labor camps.

The museum at 1109 M St. NW was set up with the support of a human rights fund established by Yahoo, the Internet giant that came under fire for helping Chinese authorities identify cyberdissidents who were ultimately jailed.

Mr. Wu, who spent 19 years of his life in 12 camps for “counterrevolutionary rightism,” wants the museum to commemorate the millions who he says perished in the camps.

The Laogai were forced labor camps established under China’s former leader Mao Zedong after the communists came to power in China in 1949. They included both common criminals and political prisoners.

“Many prisoners committed suicide. Some thought they were cowards; others that it was an act of courage. I dare not pass a judgment” says Palden Gyasto, a Tibetan monk quoted in one the numerous panels of the Laogai Museum.

“What I found most terrible however was not the beatings or hard labor - it was the way labor camps deprived their victims of their dignity,” says Tong Yi in another display. The dissident was sentenced to the Laogai in 1994 and, in her recount, the mere access to showers becomes a cruel struggle between the detainees.

Materials on display at the museum, which opened to the public Thursday, include photographs, government documents and prisoner uniforms from Mr. Wu’s own archives or donated by other Laogai survivors.

“Actually, we don’t have enough space here to showcase everything. We had to store a lot of prison-made products and thousands of victims testimonies,” Mr. Wu says.

“In the museum, the laogai can be seen as an enterprise with production quotas to be reached,” he explains, referring to the tea bags or plastic flowers produced by the prisoners. “I also wanted the viewer to understand that the first product from the camp is the man reformed.”

In 1990, China abandoned the term “laogai” and labeled the detention facilities “prisons,” a new definition that included “laojiao,” meaning “re-education through labor.” It is a form of administrative detention under which dissidents, petty criminals and vagrants can be imprisoned for years without trial.

Through several trips to China - where he infiltrated some labor camps and interviewed victims, doctors and policemen - Mr. Wu gathered evidence suggesting that forced labor is still a part of Chinese prison system.

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