China’s Laogai prison system was created soon after Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949 and it still exists today in its essential form.
In concept, it is rooted in communist revolutionary ideology blended with traditional Chinese views on punishment, namely that anti-social behavior (whether criminal or political in nature) can be “reformed” and eliminated through forced labor and re-education. Rather than merely aiming to reduce recidivism, the communists sought to transform inmates into “new socialist men” by forcing them to engage in productive labor to benefit the state and by exposing them to ideological indoctrination. Originally patterned after the Soviet Gulag, and put it place with Soviet assistance, the Laogai prison system has fostered similar inhumane treatment and been used as a vital tool in suppressing dissent and maintaining Communist Party Power.
The Laogai system imprisons both common criminals as well as individuals whose behavior is deemed dangerous to the state – behavior such as opposing government policies, being critical of government officials or practicing banned religions. Political detentions have often been arbitrary, in which prisoners are denied a trial, held on unspecified charges, and serve indefinite sentences.
In 1994, in response to increasing international scrutiny and criticism, the Chinese government ostensibly ended the Laogai system by changing the name of its labor camps for convicted criminals to “prisons” and for non-criminal offenders to “community correction centers”. But these re-named facilities have continued to operate in much the same way, and they’ve become shrouded in increasing secrecy. The Laogai Research Foundation estimates this system currently comprises over one thousand detention facilities, incarcerating millions of individuals.
The Laogai does more than detain and “reform” convicts and dissidents; the Chinese government profits handsomely from the system. Prisoners, who are typically unpaid, provide a free source of labor in prison-run factories, farms, workshops, and mines, enabling these “businesses” to reap huge profits. Unfortunately, due to intentional deception on the part of the Chinese government, lax international labeling requirements, and reliance on middlemen exporters, Laogai products are difficult to identify and continue to find their way onto store shelves worldwide. Additionally, many governments are more than willing to “look the other way” in order to preserve their trading relationship with the world’s largest market and source of cheap labor.
Even if there is substantial evidence that a particular front company or middleman is selling prison-made goods, it can still be exceedingly difficult to prove in courts, particularly when the most conclusive evidence would typically need to come from Chinese witnesses who may face retribution from their government if they cooperate.