After intensively studying post-WWII Sino-American relations in college, I didn’t encounter the term “laogai” (劳改) until several years after graduation. I was completing a fellowship at the Institute of World Politics and my boss decided to take the interns on an educational trip to the Laogai Museum after seeing the Holocaust Museum a few days prior. The museum is right off Dupont Circle in DC, hardly noticeable unless you’re looking for it, but it showcases one of the greatest devastations to humankind within the past millennia: Chinese concentration camps.
The United States did not recognize the existence of these camps until very recently. While all the press has focused on Chinese easing on the One Child Policy, I believe that there should be more focus on why more Americans do not know what laogai is, and what the end of these camps mean for the world.
Laogai means “reform through labor.” It refers to the Chinese system of prison camps founded during the Cultural Revolution. An estimated 27 million people have died in these camps—largely due to starvation—over the past 60 years. Most prisoners were critics of Communism, people who disrupted the “public peace,” business owners, religious minorities, ethnic minorities, or aforementioned family members. Once Deng Xiaoping began opening up China’s economy, the Chinese government started to use these camps to increase their revenue. Many Americans are unknowing consumers of laogai-produced products, such as most of Chinese tea.
The good news is that China openly announced that they would abolish laogai last week. Many are skeptical about the sincerity of this legislation. The Wall Street Journal reports, “The re-education camps may reopen under new names… authorities [have] created a network of ‘black jails,’ illegal detention centers where all the same abuses are carried out.”
Okay, so the news about laogai might not be so good after all, which begs the questions:
Why haven’t most Americans heard about laogai before now?
What could have happened if we were better informed?
Laogai, sadly, illuminates the darker side of international relations. While Americans are fully aware of the atrocities committed in North Korea, the media has hardly reported on those happening in China, even though laogai is responsible for far more deaths. The reality is that even if we were aware of laogai, there is nothing that we, the people, or our government could have done about it. War with China is too risky and costly, and we need them to be our frienemy far more than we need to end their human rights abuses abroad.
What laogai teaches us is that the United States acts in the interest of greed, not in the common good. Greed, while dark and sometimes uncomfortable, is always honest. It is much easier to have this in mind when crafting foreign policy with an ignorant public than an activist majority. The media did not report on laogai because our hands are tied, nothing more. “Never again” is rubbish when nuclear war would be at stake.
The world should celebrate the end of laogai. The CCP is an oppressive, authoritarian regime that controls 1.351 billion of Earth’s inhabitants. As the Chinese start having more babies (an additional 10 million more in the next five years, should figures be accurate), more people will have the opportunity to fight for freedom in China should they desire, without the fear of forced labor in the 21st century. Of course, the WSJ may be accurate in its assessment: laogai may reappear with a new name. But for now, this is a win for liberty. For us across the Pacific, may laogai serve as a reminder that sometimes we are helpless to aid those in need, and that sometimes knowing more cannot help the situation of those abroad.