In China, the Gulag is alive and well.
Gulag. The word conjures up images of the worst aspects of Stalin's Soviet Union. Between 1929 and 1953, this vast system of prisons and slave labor camps held an estimated 18 million persons. Another 6 million, while not technically confined, were exiled to remote areas of the Soviet Union and prevented from returning to their homes and loved ones.
Conditions in the camps of the Gulag were brutal. Prisoners lived for years in filthy, crowded barracks surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers and with only rudimentary health care. Forced to perform crushing, physical labor outdoors under the most primitive of conditions, prisoners were provided only limited rations. Huge numbers did not survive long enough to complete their sentences. They were literally worked to death.
After Stalin's death in 1953, millions of persons were released from the Gulag. In 1986, Mikhail Gorbachev closed the last remaining prison camps and effectively ended the system. The Gulag was consigned to the history books and the realm of grainy, old, black and white newsreels.
Except in China. In China, the Gulag is alive and well.
The Gulag in China is called Laogai, literally "reform through work". It is one of the cruelest, most repressive systems on earth and is explicitly modeled on the Soviet Gulag system Stalin created to keep his totalitarian regime in power. Laogai is a system of forced labor camps and prisons that holds not only actual criminals but also political dissidents, followers of a variety of religious faiths and other individuals judged to be a "danger to the state".
There are an estimated 1007 Laogai camps in existence. Perhaps five million persons are incarcerated in these facilities today. Fifty million individuals have passed through the system in the last sixty years.
Prisoners in the Laogai are held under horrific conditions. They are undernourished. Prisoners are fed only gruel, bread, and a watery vegetable soup made from the cheapest vegetables available. They live in crowded, filthy, unsanitary dormitories with rudimentary or non-existent sanitary facilities. Bathing is infrequent or non-existent.
Prisoners suffer from a wide range of diseases. Beriberi, edema and scurvy are common due to the poor diet. Diarrhea and constipation are the results of a lack of oil and fiber. Tuberculosis and hepatitis, both highly contagious, are epidemic.
The Laogai camps are infested with pests. Bed bugs, fleas and lice swarm over prisoners, their clothing and their bedding. No insecticides or pesticides are available.
Torture of prisoners is common. They are routinely physically and sexually abused both by guards and fellow inmates. To make escapees easily identifiable, the Chinese have adopted the practice of shaving prisoners' heads, a practice borrowed directly from the Soviet Gulag.
All individuals held in the Laogai are required to perform hard physical labor. This is often done under highly dangerous conditions. Prisoners mine asbestos without protective gear. They handle battery acid without gloves. They stand naked in vats of chemicals stirring hides, which are being tanned.
And the products of this horrible, state sanctioned system of slave labor camps are sold throughout the world for profit.
Every Laogai camp has its camp name and a separate, public name. The Shanghai Municipal Prison is also, therefore, the Shanghai Printing, Stationery Factory. The Guangdong Xiangda Enterprise Company, which makes machinery, microwaves and engine parts, is also the Guangdong Huaiji Prison. Four thousand workers, all unpaid prisoners, work in that one facility alone.
Financial information collected by Dun and Bradstreet in 1999 showed that the total annual sales of 99 Laogai camps were $842.7 million. Those 99 camps represented at the time less than ten percent of the Chinese prison camps in existence. What the combined sales are of all prison camps today is unknown but assumed to be much larger.
In 2010, the Laogai Research Foundation, an organization in Washington, DC dedicated to publicizing the abuses in the Laogai system, found over 400 English-language advertisements online marketing products with known connections to China's prison camp system. These advertisements were clearly connected to the sale of items manufactured by slave labor to Western, English-speaking consumers.
Despite legal prohibitions, the Chinese government openly promotes the sale of Laogai products on China Commodity Net, an official Chinese government sponsored website. Several efforts by investigative journalists over the last several years have demonstrated that Chinese firms are relatively open about their access to free prison labor and seem to regard the cost savings involved as a selling point in discussions with individuals posing as prospective buyers.
It is formally illegal for Laogai products to be exported to the Unites States, but enforcement of the prohibition is difficult and spotty at best. In many cases, there is no effective way for a foreign buyer to even know that an item was produced in a prison camp. Known Laogai products found advertised online show the diversity of industries involved: apparel, food, beverages, and electronics. None of them, of course, are labeled in anyway to identify them as having been manufactured by slave labor.
As horrible as all this is, however, it is not the worst aspect of the Laogai system. That distinction has to be reserved for the ongoing, highly lucrative system of organ harvesting.
Organs used in transplants in China are not commonly obtained from voluntary donors. Instead they are taken from executed prisoners, and this is directly linked to the excessively high rate at which prisoners in China are sentenced to death. Put simply, they are killed for their organs. In many cases, those organs are then sold abroad to wealthy buyers.
Many of the prisoners executed are members of Falun Gong, a Buddhist group, or other religious organizations. Recent investigations have indicated that 9,000 members of Falun Gong alone may have been killed so that their lungs, livers, corneas and skin could be harvested. Organs from just one person can bring $100,000 on the world market.
A few weeks ago, the Vice-President of China, Xi Jinping, visited Washington. He was welcomed with open arms by President Obama and feted at an official dinner at the White House. The President talked about the importance of the relationship between China and the United States. He talked about cooperation, mutual interest and mutual respect. He mentioned only in passing the importance of human rights.
He made no reference to the Laogai.
For fifty years we faced off with the Soviets. Generations of Americans put their lives on the line to stop the spread of totalitarianism. Eight successive Presidents refused to back down from the confrontation with Communism.
Apparently, we no longer have the strength of character that demands. Apparently, now our insatiable desire for cheap Chinese goods outweighs our devotion to human rights, freedom and all those other things for which this nation is supposed to stand. Apparently, now even our President has decided to pretend that the Gulag no longer exists.