“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.
“They are still huge laogai camps in Tibet,” Mr. Wu says. “American readership is not aware of it. It seems like the West doesn’t really care and prefers to act like a businessman towards China.”
Wang Baodong, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy, dismissed Mr. Wu’s museum as an unfair attempt to tarnish China’s international reputation.
“Harry Wu has been long engaged in activities aimed at attacking and smirching the Chinese government and people,” Mr. Wang says. “The purpose of his patching up this so-called museum is obviously to vilify the Chinese legal system and mislead the American public.”
When asked about the reaction of the Chinese authorities, Mr. Wu laughs.
“They always dismiss me as a morally corrupt and dangerous criminal,” he says. “Their second argument is that criminals have to work in some American prisons, too. But I can tell you that it’s not the same thing at all.”
In “New Ghosts, Old Ghosts,” a book that investigated Chinese prison system in the late nineties, authors James D. Seymour and Richard Anderson’s reassessed the economic importance of force labor in China.
“Prison output makes no significant contribution to the gross domestic product,” they conclude.
Although the authors recognized the crudeness and harshness of the system, they conclude that “even at its worst, the laogai is not, as some have claimed, ‘the Chinese equivalent of the Soviet gulag.’”
Even Mr. Wu acknowledges that prospects for democracy are improving in China: “I just want to say that freedom, democracy and laogai are incompatible.”
If the word “laogai” might never have the destiny of Solzhenitsyn’s “gulag,” which became the symbol of communist oppression, it has been added since 2003 in the Oxford Dictionary under the definition “a system of labor camps many of whose inmates are political dissidents - origin: Chinese.”
“Laogai have entered a historical memory, it’s very important,” Mr. Wu says.