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Laogai (勞改; pinyin: láo găi), which means "reform through labor," is a slogan of the Chinese criminal justice system and has been used to refer to the use of prison labor in the People's Republic of China. It is often confused with, but completely different from, reeducation through labor, which is a system of administrative detentions.
During the 1960s, Chinese prisons contained large numbers of people who had said anything critical of the government, or often just random people grabbed from their homes to fill quotas. The entire society was organized into small groups in which loyalty to the government was enforced, so that anyone with dissident viewpoints was easily identifiable for enslavement. Prisons were organized like factories. However, most people arrested for political reasons were released in the late 1970s at the start of the Deng Xiaoping reforms.
There are accusations that Chinese prisons produce products that are often sold in foreign countries, with the profits going to the PRC government. Products include everything from green tea to industrial engines to coal dug from mines. However, these products make up an insignificant amount of mainland China's export output, and it has been argued that the use of prison labor for manufacturing is not itself a violation of human rights and that most prisoners in Chinese prisons are there for what are generally regarded as crimes in the West.
Chinese use of prison labor is an interesting case study of the interaction between capitalism and prison labor. On the one hand, the downfall of socialism has reduced revenue to local governments, increasing pressure for local governments to attempt to supplement their income using prison labor. On the other hand, prisoners do not make a good workforce, and the products produced by prison labor in China are of extremely low quality and have become unsalable on the open market in competition with products made by ordinary paid labor. Furthermore, it has been argued that prison labor has considerably improved conditions for the average prisoners because wardens have found that prisoners who are well-treated make a much more productive workforce.
An insider's view from the 1950s to the 1990s is detailed in the books of Harry Wu, including Troublemaker and The Laogai. He spent almost all of his adult life as a prisoner in these camps for criticizing the government while he was a young student in college. He almost died several times, but eventually escaped to the United States. Critics have argued that he far overstates the present role of forced labor in Chinese prisons and ignores the tremendous changes that have occurred in China since then. Supporters point out that Wu revisited China in the 1990s, investigated labor camps, found little changed, was arrested again, and - except for outcry from the United States politicians of the highest levels - would still be in jail to this day for speaking his opinion.
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