How to Make a New Socialist Person

Laogai: The Chinese Gulag by Hongda Harry Wu

Harry Hongda Wu was first imprisoned by the Chinese government for the crime of being a rightist. He was sentenced to life in prison on account of his “bad attitude,” i.e. his refusal to admit guilt. He spent 19 years inside the laogaidui, the Chinese gulag, a vast prison-industrial complex that consists of detention centers, prisons, labor reform disciplinary production camps, juvenile camps, reeducation camps, and forced job placement camps.

When Wu was released in 1979, he tried to reintegrate into Chinese society. The death of his brother at the hands of the Beijing police drove Wu to exile in the United States. He could have disappeared into the Chinese diaspora to live the rest of his life in peace. Instead, Wu became obsessed by the fact that

no national or local [Chinese] newspaper, magazine, or government documents has reported on the number of camps, the number of prisoners, the general scope of labor reform; or the number, categories, and nature of the production from prison labor; or on the daily life of the prisoners.

Hongda Harry Wu, Laogai: The Chinese Gulag (Routledge 2018)

Wu’s account, Laogai: The Chinese Gulag, fills that void from the early days of the laogaidui until the 1980s. In doing so, Wu fulfills a promise he made to himself in 1957. In an oxcart crossing the mass graveyard behind Qinghe Farm, Wu swore to reveal the true nature of the laogaidui.


The distinctions among the various components of the laogaidui are murky. To be sentenced to a laogai, as Wu was, one must be arrested, convicted, and sentenced in a court of law. No judicial due process applies to reeducation camps or forced job placement camps, which use “administrative measures” under Chinese law. Detention centers are intended solely for prisoners convicted though not yet sentenced.

In all other respects, the six members of the laogaidui family function as one. Its most obvious function is to rid society of undesirable elements. Like the Soviet gulag and the Nazi concentration camp, the laogaidui employs violence to suppress political dissent.

However, the labor reform system of the CCP differs from the other two in its conception and means of suppression—”mind reform through forced labor.”

This is how the Chinese government makes a new socialist person. But the laogaidui is also an economic enterprise. The CCP compels labor from all prisoners across the laogaidui, including those who have already completed their term of imprisonment.

For example, in the 1950s and 60s, Wu estimates that 95% of prisoners never left the laogaidui. Only special prisoners like the last emperor Pu Yi, children of CCP cadres, or otherwise “useless mouths” were let go.

The purpose of the Chinese [labor reform camps] is not simply to maintain order in society or to punish criminals in accordance with the law but also to protect and consolidate the dictatorship of the Communist Party.

The Road Not Traveled

Wu’s account of the laogaidui constitutes research for my short stories set in a 1950s Chinese labor camp. While I have written about the Chinese gulag before, Wu offers some eye-watering insights. For example, in the 1950s

80-90 percent of [labor camp] prisoners were military or government leaders left behind by the nationalist government, landlords, rich peasants, capitalists, and a few active counter-revolutionaries. Most of these prisoners came from “exploiting class” (boxie jieji) backgrounds.

My maternal grandfather was a functionary of the Nationalist government. On both sides of my family, my grandparents belonged to the so-called exploiting class. My paternal grandparents had also spent time in the United States and maintained a large network of foreign friends. If any of them had remained in China after the Communist revolution, some would have ended in the laogaidui.

Within the hierarchy of laogaidui prisoners, the system comes down hardest on political prisoners. Common criminals are “more ideologically pure and more easily reformed.” Hence, their use to discipline the political prisoners by way of beatings, torture, and false accusations.

In the laogaidui there is no concept of false incrimination […] the authorities view the ultimate truth or falsehood of an accusation as secondary in importance; most important is the allegiance to the government shown by the act of accusation.

Future tense

Wu made a series of daredevil attempts to re-enter China to collect data for Laogai: The Chinese Gulag and his subsequent memoir, Bitter Winds. He posed as a prison guard, tourist and American businessman, risking arrest anew. Wu died in 2016.

He did not live to see Xi Jinping Thought enshrined in the Chinese constitution or the rise of re-education camps in Xinjiang province. With the benefit of hindsight, Wu seems implausibly optimistic about the future of China and its laogaidui.

The regime responded [to the mass protests at Tiananmen Square] with the only method it understands—force—and the Tiananmen movement was crushed with tanks and soldiers. This knee-jerk response reveals clearly the essentially weak nature of the regime and indicates that it may not be long before a turning point is reached.

If anything, the opposite seems true.

As early as 1957, the Communist regime realized that they had won the war against the exploiting class. Through terror, incarceration or outright killing, the regime had eradicated its former class enemy and yet protests continued. A new class enemy was born. According to Deng Xiaoping, these enemies include “criminals who disrupt the socialist order and other bad elements, corrupt thieves and robbers, and new exploiting opportunists.”

The incentive to maintain control through the iron hand is as strong as ever. Yet, there are other reasons to perpetuate a slave-based economy. In the 1980s, the policy on convict release fluctuated depending upon the level of political unrest and economic demands. Today, youth unemployment is at a record high. This both impedes China’s economic recovery from the pandemic and sows the seeds for future political unrest. According to Wu, China is increasingly reliant on its imprisoned labor force to compete in international markets. Neither the laogaidui nor Wu’s book will lose their relevance any time soon.

27 May 2023 | Karen Kao