Forced Prison Labor in China

By Patricia Pylman January 21, 2010

This student did an excellent report on Laogai, and gave EPM permission to post her research paper. — Randy Alcorn

Chinese in prayer“Chinese and Tibetan dissidents are either locked up in prison, forced into hiding, or silenced by fear of police retaliation against their families. All the happiness about China’s economic growth has made many Americans forget that police clubs and guns and the Laogai system keep the Communist Party in power. Moreover, it is still little recognized how American resources help to sustain that power through trade, investments, and the transfer of technology... It is only when the Laogai is abolished in China that real change will come about.” — Hongda Harry Wu

Introductory Thoughts:

Many countries, including the United States, have a process of prison labor as part of their penal system. However, in Chinese prisons the inmates are forced to labor up to 20 hours a day in conditions that are inhumane.

The labor reform system, called the “Laogaidui,” in the People’s Republic of China consists of three categories: convicted labor reform (“Laogai”), reeducation through labor (“Laojiao”), and forced job placement (“jiuye”). What makes the situation of the Laogaidui unique is the fact that it has become an essential part of China’s GNP and is becoming indispensable to China’s economic health. The People’s Republic of China has a vested interest in continuing and expanding the Laogaidui, as it is profitable within China and is a way of bringing in money from the West.

While no one would argue that a communist state like China has a different approach to labor for its citizens, the Laogaidui doesn’t even follow the laws of China. Further, though the International community has tried to address the Human Right’s abuses of the Laogaidui, China has refused to cooperate or given only minimal assistance. There are over 1,200 labor camps right now in China and the estimated number of forced laborers is in the millions. China has played with definitions, delayed in responding to requests for inspection, and simply ignored the promises it has made. Apparently, this has worked. With the exception of shipments here and there being turned away at U.S.Ports because they can be traced to forced labor, most goods make it to market. Christmas tree lights, auto parts, textile goods are only some of the items to be considered. And this, of course, ignores the fact that a lot of the forced labor goods stay in country and support the system of legitimate export goods.

The evidence for Human Right’s abuses is compelling despite the difficulties in acquiring the information, the ever-changing nature of the information, and the incredible scope of the Laogaidui system. As an American and a consumer, it is terribly disturbing to think that fellow human beings are being forced to labor in horrible conditions simply to produce inexpensive goods for export to the Western market. Unfortunately, the public at large seems unaware of this issue and unconcerned by the support we are giving China by buying their products. While the U.S. Government has published its ideal of not supporting countries that abuse their citizens, it has not taken as aggressive a stand on this issue as seems warranted.

My goal in this project is simply to synthesize some of the information sources available, and to this end I have compiled a list of various books, web sites, and articles. I hope that this modest process will serve to raise awareness on this issue.

Academic Disciplines:

Political Science Sociology Social History and Conditions Labor
Library of Congress Subject Headings:

Forced labor — China Convict labor — China Human Rights — China United States — foreign economic relations Foreign trade regulation Concentration camps — China Political prisoners — China

Keywords and Subject Headings:

Slave Labor — China Laogai Laogai Research Foundation Harry Wu Prison — China Forced Labor Labor — China Import — China Export — China




Expanded Academic ASAP on InfoTrac — TCC


Appendix 2 of Laogai, The Chinese Gulag lists the commodities imported from the People’s Republic of China according to the U.S. Department of Commerce and cross references these with commodities known to be produced by the Labor Reform Camps of the People’s Republic of China as of March 1990. This list gives the commodities, separated into the U.S. Department of Commerce’s 99 categories, each followed by either the code of the specific camps producing that commodity or by the designation of “none, some, many, or most” labor reform camps produce the commodity. I was most impressed by the fact that the majority of these commodities are what I would consider raw materials not the sort of finished product that would be sold directly to the consumer. This means that, as consumers, we are at the mercy of the U.S. Government monitoring what comes into the U.S. ports as raw material because we don’t have any way of tracing that when we go to buy the finished product. I will add here that the Import Administration gives the value of imports from the People’s Republic of China for 2000 as $91,967,022,000. We are buying a lot of goods from the People’s Republic of China!

Wu, Hongda Harry. Laogai, The Chinese Gulag. Boulder: Westview Press, 1992.


Safely HomeAlcorn, Randy. Safely Home. Wheaton: Tyndale, 2001.

Fictional account of a Chinese Christian’s persecution in a Chinese prison. This is the book that sparked my interest in this issue. While the central character is fictional, he is a composite of several Chinese prisoners who have been able to tell of their experience.

Mr. Alcorn is a respected Christian author and the founder of Eternal Perspective Ministries. See for additional information on the book and author.

Wu, Hongda Harry. Laogai, the Chinese Gulag. Boulder: Westview Press, 1992.

Perhaps the definitive book on this issue which includes extensive description of the structure of the Chinese Penal system, first hand information about Harry Wu’s experiences in the 19 years he was a prisoner, and five appendices with the information current at the time of publication.

Hongda Harry Wu is the expert on the issue of the Laogai and the head of the Laogai Research Foundation. He is also a Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

Web Site Data:

Labor. Office of International Labor Affairs. 3 May, 1994. U.S. Department of State. 25 Feb. 2002

This site contains the mission statement of the U.S. Government regarding international laborer rights.

Primary Web Organization:

Laogai Research Foundation Web Site. Laogai Research Foundation. 25 Feb. 2002.

The Laogai Research Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to collecting information about China’s vast system of forced-labor camps. The foundation was started by Hongda Harry Wu, who has written three books on his experiences as a Chinese prisoner for over 19 years. He is also a professor and an activist. This site provides numerous links to first-hand accounts of experiences in Chinese prisons and the most up to date information available on the Laogai in every region of China. An estimated 8 million individuals are confined in the Laogai. It contains information on the Laogai Handbook that is, apparently, the definitive resource on all the information that can be gleaned about the Chinese Prison system — where, who, how many, what goods are being produced — and contains information on more than 1,200 camps.

See Hongda Harry Wu above.

Below are some of the best articles I found through this site:

“Introduction to China’s Laogai, Laogai Handbook.” The Laogai Research Foundation. 25 Feb. 2002

This article provides a brief and general introduction to the issue of the Laogai in addition to detailing the construction and scope of the 5th edition of the Laogai Handbook.

“Laogai Research Foundation (Special Report), Immoral and Illegal.” May 1997. The Laogai Research Foundation. 25 Feb. 2002

This report focuses on the four cases of Laogai goods traced to the U.S. market that were detailed in testimony to lawmakers in the May 1997 congressional hearings. It states, “The Laogai is an integral part of the Chinese government’s economic policies. The Laogai is now more than self-sustaining: foreign exchange earned through trade in Laogai goods has funded the building of larger, more economically viable camps.” The report references names, dates, and specific conversations.

Wu, Harry. “Feb. 14, 2000 — Letter to one of the presidents of a principle organization in the Business Coalition for US-China Trade.” 14 Feb. 2000. The Laogai Research Foundation. 25 Feb. 2002

This masterful letter is in direct response to information posted on the Business Coalition for US-China Trade’s web site and gives evidence to refute their claims.

“Ignoring & Evading U.S. Law: Importation of Forced Labor Products from China.” 27 April 2000. The Laogai Research Foundation. 25 Feb. 2002

This report details the record of compliance (largely non-compliance) with the MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) between US and People’s Republic of China which prohibits import and export trade in prison labor products. It also contains attachment lists that detail specific camps and cases of non-compliance, as well as the progress/action on those cases.

Web Sites for Other Organizations:

U.S.-China Business Council. 14 Feb. 2002. U.S.-China Business Council. 25 Feb. 2002

This is the web site for U.S.-China Business Council, an organization of U.S. companies engaged in trade and investment in China, with information on China and the WTO, the U.S.-China balance of trade, and the issue of PNTR (permanent normal trade relations) for China. While this site doesn’t mention Laogai, it provides balance on this issue. This site also provides an exceptional set of links to information on China and other trade organizations concerned with US-Asia trade as well as information on issues being discussed in Congress, including voting records. Unfortunately, there is no “search” feature.

Amnesty International* working to protect human rights worldwide. 15 Feb. 2002. Amnesty International On-Line. 25 Feb. 2002

Amnesty International is the best site for the most current information on what action the average citizen can take immediately. This site is clearly more interested in the life and death matters of Chinese prisoners than on worker’s rights, however, I believe that AI has a lot of credibility and fills a unique place for citizens seeking specific information required to take immediate action. Note the article below and, further on, the testimony of Stephen Rickard, the Legislative Director of Amnesty international USA, below.

Amnesty International On-Line, Countries|China. 21 Feb. 2002. Amnesty International. 25 Feb. 2002

* Note from EPM: we cite Amnesty International selectively on our site related to issues surrounding persecution. However, their stance on “reproductive rights” (abortion) is radically opposed to our own, and therefore we cannot recommend supporting their work.

This URL leads to annual report entries referencing China from 1997-present. A search using the word “laogai” will lead to specific current reports about imprisoned dissidents.

AFL-CIO Main Page. 25 Feb. 2002. The American Federation of Labor and Industrial Organizations. 25 Feb. 2002

This very credible web site was not one that I would have thought of on my own, but I kept getting search results that led to their archives and it became clear that they have been following the issue of slave/prison labor in China, and Harry Wu since the mid-nineties. To find these articles from the main web site I went to the search & site map and typed in laogai, there are also a lot under the term “forced labor”. The article summaries are very useful. I found the articles on this site to be of a serious nature and focused on the issue of laborer’s rights, not really a surprise. It is a well-organized site that is kept up to date and has a very “browse-able” home page with the latest news. I am very impressed with this page (and thus, think more of the organization) because it seems to make a serious effort to focus on real issues.

HRIC Homepage. 20 Feb. 2002. Human Rights In China. 25 Feb. 2002

This web site has a broader scope than my topic, but it has so many good articles and links it should really be included. This site focuses on comparing what China says it should be doing (internal laws) and what it is doing. It is well organized and gives very current and specific information. Search using “laogai” or “RTL” if you don’t see any current, relevant headlines. This site changes rapidly but keeps an extensive archive. Note the article below.

“Reeducation Through Labor (RTL): A summary of regulatory issues and concerns.” 1 Feb. 2002. Human Rights In China. 25 Feb. 2002

This is a report summary with endnotes I found through the Human Rights In China homepage which bears mention. It includes sections on background, current regulatory framework, abuses, domestic debates, conflicts with internal law, and some pertinent recommendations. It also includes an appendix with a sample list of dissidents detained under RTL (Reform Through Labor) in the last two years.

Web Accessible Articles and Reports:

Vernon, Wes. “China a Terrorist Threat to U.S., Dissident Wu Warns.” 26 Jan. 2002. NewsMax.Com. America’s News Page. 25 Feb. 2002

This is the first of two articles written by Wes Vernon. This brief article quotes Harry Wu as he argues, “...anyone who kids himself by accepting the huge communist nation as part of a Western-organized crusade to combat terrorism is dealing with a contradiction in terms.” This article also discusses the current best-seller about China, “Seeds of Fire: China and the Story Behind the Attack on America.”

Wes Vernon is a regular journalist for NewsMax.Com.

Vernon, Wes. “U.S. Helps China Destroy Ourselves, Dissident Wu Says.” 28 Jan. 2002. NewsMax.Com. America’s News Page. 25 Feb. 2002

This is the conclusion to the January 26th article and quotes Harry Wu as he explicitly addresses forced-labor and the implications of the importation of these goods.

See Wes Vernon above.

Wu, Harry. “Testimony of Harry Wu, Executive Director, The Laogai Research Foundation.” 24 June 1998. Subcommittee on International Economic Policy and Trade of the House Committee on International Relations. 25 Feb. 2002

This passionate testimony represents an exploration of the question of whether or not US economic ‘engagement’ with China is a success or a failure and questions the ideology and rationale for being a partner in trade with a totalitarian regime. It is of a more emotional nature than I would expect, but it serves to introduce several other presentations and should be considered in this context.

See Hongda Harry Wu above.

Duplantier, F.R. “Chinese Goods Made By Slave Labor.” Mar. 1996. America’s Future. 25 Feb. 2002

This article was written about a speech given by Harry Wu at North Carolina’s Wingate University in December of 1995. It is brief but includes several pointed statements made by Harry Wu. I couldn’t find information about the author, but the article is well-written.

Rickard, Stephen. “Testimony Presented to the International Operations and Human Rights Subcommittee.” 8 Dec. 1999. Subcommittee on International Economic Policy and Trade of the House Committee on International Relations. 25 Feb. 2002

This testimony is a point by point account of how poorly China is doing with respect to human rights and China’s admission to the WTO. Mr. Rickard asks the question, “Why is it easier to protect copyrights than human rights?”

Stephen Rickard is the Legislative Director of Amnesty International USA.

Pejan, Ramin. “Laogai: ‘Reform Through Labor’ in China.” n.d. American University. 25 Feb. 2002

This article provides a summary of the Laogai System, incentives to the PRC (People’s Republic of China), conditions in the Laogai, applicable Chinese law, violation of International law and standards, and ideas on how to end the Laogai system. This is a very well-written article and is an education to read. It was written sometime after September of 1999, I was unable to determine the exact date.

Ramin Pejan is a Doctoral candidate at the Washington College of Law and an articles editor for the Human Rights Brief.

Human Rights for Workers Bulletin, April 27, 1999. “An Update on Sweatshops in the Toy Industry.” 27 April 1999. 25 Feb. 2002

These are highlights from a report which interviews workers of 12 Guangdong toy factories, all of whom export to multinational corporations including Disney, Mattel, Tyco, and McDonalds. This article gives links to further documentation and a way to order a full report. Sadly, considering the harsh conditions described, these are not even Laogai workshops. I include this here because it begs the question of whether it is ethical to purchase any goods imported from China.

“Yuanming News — The Evil Deeds Committed by Wanzhuang Forced Labor Camp in Langfang City, Hebei Province.” 22 Nov. 2001. ClearHarmony Net. 25 Feb. 2002

This is a brief but specific first hand report of treatment in the Wanzhuang Forced Labor Camp. This web site focuses on the persecution of Falun Gong in China. Falun Gong, also Falun Dafa, is similar to T’ai Chi or Yoga with the important component of meditation. While the information is consistent with the descriptions of prisoner treatment in other sources, this web site doesn’t have the same level of credibility.

Falun Dafa Clearwisdom. net. “First-hand Accounts Reveal the Chinese Labor Camp Reality.” 30 May 2001. ClearWisdom. 25 Feb. 2002

This article gives the necessary contact information to get detailed accounts from four former prisoners and casts doubt on the conditions seen during the recent tour of NBC reporters. It also provides information on how to contact Falun Gong practitioners who have first hand information about the treatment they received in the Laogai and who are willing to be interviewed. This web site focuses on the persecution of Falun Gong in China. Falun Gong, also Falun Dafa, is similar to T’ai Chi or Yoga with the important component of meditation. The information on this site is consistent with the descriptions of prisoners in other sources, it provides unique information and links.

Periodical Articles:

Aikman, David. “The Laogai Archipelago.” Weekly Standard 29 Sept. 1997:17+. SIRS Researcher. Seattle Central Community College Library. 12 Feb. 2002

This well-written article passionately lays out the effects of the prison labor in keeping the population under control and in bringing in a lot of money to the unelected and ruthless regime. While acknowledging that other countries use prison labor this article talks about how the desire to make more money has led to building more prisons, for profit not to control crime. Additionally, the conditions at these prisons are horrible and the execution rate by far the highest in the world. This strong article shows the scope of the Laogai situation.

David Aikman is a veteran foreign correspondent.

Hickman, John. “Struggle over China policy: The Clinton Administration and the 105th Congress.” American Asian Review Summer 1999: 87-115. ProQuest. Seattle Central Community College Library. 12 Feb. 2002

This article has copious sources cited and an entire paragraph specifically detailing the human rights violations taking place with regard to slave labor. It discusses both the AFL-CIO and the Laogai Foundation. The article focuses on the conflict between President Clinton and the GOP-controlled 105th Congress over US policy toward China. This article best clarifies the political difficulties in dealing with China because of their Human Rights violations.

John Hickman of Berry College. Copyright held by Institute of Asian Studies Summer 1999.

“China’s Woes.” Current Events, Middletown 23 April 1999:2a-2d. ProQuest. Seattle Central Community College Library. 12 Feb. 2002

This article reaches into many different sources for both statistics and quotations, but it remains anonymous and gives no sources or citations. It discusses a wide range of problems in China caused by the sudden economic growth, from environmental to human rights. It is very well-written and readable. Although this article has questionable authority, much of the information could be cross-referenced by the serious researcher and it provides an excellent over-all view of the effects of the economic growth in China.

Graybow, Charles. “Five Years After Tiananmen: Rights and Hopes in China.” Freedom Review May/June 1994: 5-13. SIRS Researcher. Seattle Central Community College Library. 12 Feb. 2002

The authors of these four articles give their views on China’s human rights record and the United States’ linkage of this issue to its trade relationship with China. The article analyzes recent political events in China: China’s burgeoning economic growth; social and political unrest, including the 1989 tragedy at Tiananmen Square; government repression of political dissidents; and China’s forced labor camps. The pros and cons of granting China Most Favored Nation (MFN) trade status with the U.S. and China’s token compliance with America’s human rights demands in order to gain MFN status are examined. This provides some different points of view regarding China and the human rights issues.

There are four authors included in this source: Charles Graybow, who covers Asian human rights issues at Freedom House; William McGurn, who is senior editor at FAR EASTERN ECONOMIC REVIEW; Representative Nancy Pelosi, a Congresswoman from San Francisco (this article was adapted from her testimony given before the House Ways and Means Sub-Committee on Trade Hearings on U.S.-China Trade Relations held in February); and Harry Wu, the executive director of the Laogai Research Foundation and Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

Non-Print Sources:

Alcorn, Randy. Letter to Patricia Pylman. 17 Jan. 2002

In this email letter, Mr. Alcorn suggests keyword search terms for my topic in response to an email I sent him. These terms are listed above.

Review of My Research Process:

Looking back over my notes, it was probably the personal response from the author of Safely Home, Randy Alcorn, that made me decide to pursue this topic in week three of the course. At that time I didn’t know anything other than what I had read in his book and didn’t know where I would focus my topic. Mr. Alcorn was kind enough to direct me to search using the keywords “Laogai” and “Harry Wu,” “China,” and “prison.”

It was a difficult decision to limit my topic to the issue of forced labor in Chinese prisons, and the more I have researched the topic the more difficult it has been. China has an unbelievable rate of executions in their prisons (and there is ample proof of organ harvesting), they imprison people who are not “criminals” at all, they are students, scholars, religious leaders, etc. Basically, they use their prisons as a way to neutralize anyone who may be a threat to their totalitarian regime. These prisoners are tortured, their families are forced to pay bribes, and, even if they survive their sentence, they are likely to be transferred to “jiuye” and, essentially, forced to do the same job they were doing as a “convict” with only the tiniest shift in their living conditions.

Other than the books that I have read by Harry Wu, you can see that the majority of the research I have found is on the Internet. Only the most cursory information was available on my topic in the ‘standard’ research formats and most of this, in the end, was out of date or too general to use. This is, in part, because of the immediate nature of the issue and in part because there is a real bias toward information that can be verified by several sources. Despite the vast numbers of Chinese prisoners in the laogaidui, the fortunate survivors who have made it out of the reach of the Chinese government have friends and family members that they must protect with their silence. The Laogai Research Foundation provides some of the best research I found and I particularly appreciated how open they were about when they knew something and when it was a “best guess.”

Toward the end of my project I had to filter through and discard numerous articles about the Laogai simply because they didn’t focus primarily on the issue of prison labor. Because my topic falls somewhat “between the cracks” of the normal subject headings I would often find a small mention of the forced labor issue in a whole article about human rights abuses or a whole article about trade status with China that would mention that there were some concerns about human rights, such as the issue of forced labor. Since this web page is more for my own uses, I have included work here that wasn’t included in my formal project. As a new researcher, I have gained an appreciation for how much more information has to be read, understood, and often discarded to reach a final project which ends up representing only a tiny amount of the knowledge gained!

Please send any comments to