Gulag with Chinese Characteristics

Let’s blame the Russians. After all, they’re the ones who first lit the flame of Marxist-Leninist socialism. The 1917 revolution was just the start. Russians taught the world how to collectivize farms, quash dissent and foment worldwide revolution. As Charles Clover writes:

Starting soon after the Bolshevik revolution [in 1917], Soviet leaders offered sanctuary and training to communist parties through the world, with a particular emphasis on neighbouring China.

Red at Heart by Elizabeth McGuire
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Red at Heart: How Chinese Communists Fell in Love with the Russian Revolution is a chronicle by Elizabeth McGuire of those early interactions. There were, of course, stumbling blocks.

Food was scarce, the climate was unforgiving, and the language was a nearly insurmountable barrier. Stalinist purges were unpredictable and many Chinese students fell afoul of opaque factional rivalries.

Yet the Chinese came flocking and proved to be excellent students. Those who returned to China came bearing the revolutionary flame.


They also brought home a bag of tricks. How to purge rivals. The pro’s and con’s of a cult of personality. A nifty invention: prison camps where enemies of the state must labor for the state. The Russians called it the gulag.

Never Remember: Searching for Stalin's Gulag in Putin's Russia by Masha Gessen and Misha Friedman.
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Writer Masha Gessen and photographer Misha Friedman have produced a book titled Never Remember: Searching for Stalin’s Gulags in Putin’s Russia. They explain that there were dozens of gulags. A Gulag of Timber Production and another for Railroad Construction. Each gulag in turn consisted of multiple lagpunkts or camp units.

[Each camp] was created for a specific task – a construction project, a dig, a mine – and when the job was completed, when the tower was built, when the canal was dug, when the mine was depleted, when the forest was decimated – the camp disappeared, often without a trace.

We know from Alexander Solzhenitsyn that life in the gulag was harsh. Possession of a pen and paper was grounds for execution. Yet earlier this year, the Gulag Museum in Moscow put on an exhibit entitled Evidence: Little Book. That book was the diary of Olga M. Ranitskaya, written during her sentence to labor at the weather station of Karlag labor camp in Kazakhstan. While Solzhenitsyn wrote his accounts of the gulag after his release, Ranitskaya wrote hers while in the gulag. Her account may be the only one to have survived.

the chinese gulag

Mao liked the idea of a gulag. He saw a neat way to get rid of enemies and draw on a pool of “free” labor. This Chinese version of the gulag became the laodong gaizao (劳动改造). The people call it the laogai, reform through labor.

Labor reform is a thoroughly Marxist concept. As Sanne Deckwitz writes:

The idea behind labour reform was that all crimes, whether political or not, are capitalistic and anti-socialist in nature. Only by engaging in physical labour can this ideology of the exploiting classes be eradicated, while simultaneously creating a feeling of solidarity with the Communist proletariat.

So far, so Russian. But Mao went one step father than his Russian teachers. Thought reform is a critical component of the laogai. In Mao’s day, prisoners devoted vast amounts of time to study groups and struggle sessions.


The practice continues today throughout the Chinese prison system. Unironically, the Chinese government calls their camp guards educators. Their official task is to convert wrongdoers into new people.

The principal methods used to carry out the thought reform program included individual interrogations, study groups, and the mobilization of inmates to supervise and exert pressure on each other.

Prisoner of Mao by Jean Pasqualini and Rudolph Cheminski. Chinese gulag
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A laogai survivor, Jean Pasqualini (aka Bao Ruowang), described his experiences in his 1973 memoir Prisoner of Mao.  He described the point of all that peer-group pressure.

to make you accept your ordinary life, as you led it, as rotten and sinful and worthy of punishment, since it did not concord with their own, the police’s, conception of how a life should be led. The basis of their success is despair, the prisoner’s perception that he is utterly and hopelessly and forever at the mercy of his jailers. He has no defence, since his arrest is absolute and unquestionable proof of his guilt.

This sounds remarkably consistent with the experiences of Peter Humphrey, released from a Chinese prison in 2015.

made in china

That, of course, is the biggest difference between the gulag and the laogai. The gulag is history. The laogai is alive and well. Chinese prisons and labor camps are filled with Falun Gong practitioners, drug users and sex workers, human rights defenders, lawyers and journalists.

Now it’s the Uighurs who are under attack. This ethnic minority lives at the western edge of China in Xinjiang province. Rian Thum writes of the current crackdown:

Local governments organize public ceremonies and signings asking ethnic minorities to pledge loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party; they hold mandatory re-education courses and forced dance performances, because some forms of Islam forbid dance. In some neighborhoods, security organs carry out regular assessments of the risk posed by the residents: Uighurs get a 10 percent deduction on their score for ethnicity alone and lose another 10 percent if they pray daily.

Last year, Xi Jinping proclaimed a new era for socialism with Chinese characteristics. But in many respects, Xi appears to be reverting to the bad old days. Whether it’s propaganda, online censorship or outright interference in elections, the Chinese state is tightening its grip on its people.

The Chinese government is inviting tenders to build and run new re-education camps. Local governments are running ads for camp staff. The lessons learned in Moscow all those years ago have clearly borne fruit. The student now surpasses the master.