National Security & Defense

China’s Slaves

Prison workers in Chongqing, China, 2008. (Getty)
What that “Made in China” label really means.

This isn’t NRO’s dedicated China spot, but I’ve got one last CCP piece to write before moving back to more cheerful subjects.

There was big news last week: that China had overtaken the U.S. as the world’s largest economy; the People’s Republic is on track to produce $17.6 trillion of goods and services this year, $200 billion ahead of the U.S. A lot of acrimony has been heaped on Mr. Obama’s economics, which seem to have sludged our growth to a crawl. And a lot of credit has been laid at the feet of Communist China’s march toward capitalism. But there’s an element missing from the discussion. An economy is bound to grow when it’s got one billion, three hundred and fifty-seven million people available for slave labor.

A hundred and fifty years ago, the United States finally stamped out its scourge of slavery. Most of the civilized world either had beaten us to the punch or would follow soon after. China has officially abolished slavery several times — in the 14th century, in the 18th, and again in the 20th. But it never really took: China’s Communist dictators operate more than a thousand 1,000 slave-labor camps.

The camps are called “laogai,” a contraction of “láodòng gǎizào,” which means “reform through labor.” They were conceived under Mao; unlike Stalin’s gulags, they never closed — though the CCP has tried to abolish the name “laogai.” In the Nineties, it redesignated the camps “prisons.” The conditions, though, don’t seem to have changed.

Our picture of life in the laogai is murky, but here’s what has been reported: The prisoners are given uniforms and shoes. They have to purchase their own socks, underwear, and jackets. There are no showers, no baths, and no beds. Prisoners sleep on the floor, in spaces less than a foot wide. They work 15-hour days, followed by two hours of evening indoctrination; at night they’re not allowed to move from their sleeping-spots till 5:30 rolls around, when they’re woken for another day of hard labor. Fleas, bedbugs, and parasites are ubiquitous. The prisoners starve on meager supplies of bread, gruel, and vegetable soup. Once every two weeks they get a meal of pork broth.

The camps currently billet between 3 and 5 million convicts — real criminals along with thought criminals guilty of opposing Communism, promoting freedom, or practicing religion — though the process doesn’t wait on conviction; Chinese law permits the police to hold anyone for four years before judicial proceedings. At any given time — according to the Laogai Research Foundation — 500,000 Chinese citizens are in “arbitrary detention.” If a prisoner does get a hearing, he enters a legal system controlled, capriciously, by the Communist Party.

The laogai camps are estimated to have held between 40 and 50 million prisoners since they opened in 1949. Which is about the population of South Korea. Between 15 and 20 million of those prisoners died or were killed. Which is two or three times the population of Hong Kong. Or to put it another way: Between 50 and 300 thousand people were murdered during Japan’s rape of Nanking. China’s Communist Party has inflicted between 50 and 400 Nanking massacres on the country it dominates.

According to an article published in Human Events by a man named Michael Chapman, a large proportion of Chinese exports originate in the camps — a quarter of China’s tea, tens of thousands of tons of grain; “ . . . prisoners mine asbestos and other toxic chemicals with no protective gear, work with batteries and battery acid with no protection for their hands, tan hides while standing naked in vats filled three feet deep with chemicals used for the softening of animal skins, and work in improperly run mining facilities where explosions and other accidents are a common occurrence.” And that work finds its way into American and European stores.

A quick Internet search will yield photos of notes slipped into Chinese products on sale everywhere from Kmart to Saks. Notes begging for help, signed by Chinese slaves. One that turned up in Northern Ireland says, “We work 15 hours every day and eat food that wouldn’t even be fed to pigs and dogs.” It was written in Chinese; one that turned up in Oregon was written in English. “People who work here have to work 15 hours a day without Saturday, Sunday break and any holidays. Otherwise, they will suffer torturement. . . . Many of them are Falun Gong practitioners, who are totally innocent people only because they have different believe to CCPG. They often suffer more punishment than others.”

The CCPG is the Chinese Communist Party Government; the writer of that note identifies himself as a worker in the Masanjia labor camp. Former Masanjia inmates have been interviewed by the New York Times. They described “frequent beating, days of sleep deprivation, and prisoners chained up in painful positions for weeks on end.” One told the Times, “Sometime the guards would drag me around by my hair or apply electric batons to my skin for so long the smell of burning flesh would fill the room.” Another said, “I still can’t forget the pleas and howling.” About half of Masanjia’s inmates are in for refusing to renounce their religion — mostly followers of Falun Gong and Christians.

Another note from China turned up in Brazil. It was written in English and just four words long: “I slave. Help me.”

And remember: The camps’ prisoners are just the formal slaves. In a more general sense, all of China’s one and a third billion people are slaves; without freedom of speech, of assembly, of religion, of movement, of the press, and without a government that derives its powers from the consent of the governed.

So, China’s got a leg up in the economy-building race. The same one that Germany had at its camps. So this Christmas season, look out for that “Made in Nazi Germany” sticker.

Or maybe this will bring it home: This Christmas, remember that “Made in China” may mean “Made by Chinese Christians.” Happy holidays.

— Josh Gelernter writes weekly for NRO and is a regular contributor to The Weekly Standard.

Josh Gelernter — Josh Gelernter is a weekly columnist for NRO, and a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.

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