A prison by any other name

On 1 July 2013, the state-run Xinhua media outlet reported on the plans of China’s leadership to reform its “re-education through labour“ system, called Laojiao. The announcement came as part of the most ambitious reform package since the launch of Deng Xiaoping’s “opening-up policy” in 1978. The decision to overhaul the “re-education through labour” camps – established institutions since 1957 – is assumed to have been provoked by both the growing discontent of the Chinese people and international criticism.

The Laojiao system allowed the police to detain people for up to four years without an open trial. Mostly petty criminals, political dissidents and religious offenders were placed in these corrective labour camps, where they were forced to produce consumer goods for export to the EU and the USA – (The story of a woman finding a letter from labour camp inmate hidden inside a Halloween toy she had bought at Kmart recently made headlines). Long working hours, draconian punishments and lacking food supply were the characteristics of life in the Laojiao.

Who thinks that the camps are now being closed is wrong. There is evidence that they are not being abolished, but turned into “compulsory drug rehabilitation centres”, operating much in the same way as before. Drug addicts were regulars in the Laojiao in the past, and now that all other detainees have been let go (or sent to other prisons), the addicts are the last to remain. Chances are that the number of people sent to “rehab” for “drug abuse” will rise in the near future.

Certain modern penal theories led to the conclusion that political dissidents and nonconformists represent a separate class of offenders that require special treatment – meaning isolating from the rest of society, incarcerating them and forcing them to work. However, the concept of prison labour has existed for centuries, and has always served to control potentially dangerous elements in society. In the 20th century, socialist societies took the concept of penal labour to a new level. Marxist propaganda claimed that crimes were the result of the socio-economic injustices generated by the capitalist system, and that they would disappear under socialism. However, the number of criminals and other uncomfortable individuals remained largely the same. In face of the need to generate economic growth, government officials decided that the prison system should not only be inexpensive, but self-supporting, and that all those incarcerated should work. The labour force of prisoners in the Soviet Union, Romania, China and North Korea was used to execute monumental building projects and to mine for gold and diamonds under very difficult conditions.

The Chinese leadership, at some point in the 1980s, decided that prison camps should not only be self-supporting, but that they should actually contribute to the country’s new economic strategy, and produce for export.

The people who get detained in Laojiao camps are often poor, and live on the fringes of society. Their fate gets little attention, and many Chinese are oblivious to the existence of the camps. Though some experts say that likening the Chinese and North Korean labour camps to Soviet Gulags or Nazi concentration camps is over the top, the accounts by former inmates do remind of a Solzhenitsyn novel.

The new Chinese government wants to seem more liberal, open-minded, spontaneous and modern than its predecessor. Loosening the one-child-policy and the Laojiao system are attempts to foster this appearance. What China did in the case of the “re-education through labour” camps was to rename the institution, while keeping up the practice. The truth is, in order to sustain its current growth model – and by that I am not just referring to prisoners producing cheap toys for Western supermarkets, but also to the exploitation of workers in the special economic zones, the censorship of the media and the environmental damage – China needs institutions of repression.

What will the Chinese do once they have understood that the prize society has to pay for growth might be too high? And when will the rest of us understand the full meaning behind the label “Made in China”?