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Lao gai -- China's gulags

by Gary Gach

What's the big whoop about Chinese prison work camps?

Well, sure, they challenge our imagination. I don't think any of us can imagine what it must be like to be inside a Chinese prison. Human Rights Watch has published some very hair-raising memoirs, as has Harry Wu. And just this month, Viking has brought out The Courage To Stand Alone, prison writings by Wei Jingsheng.

These testimonies raise difficult questions about human rights and democracy in China. As Wei Jingsheng asked, on the Democracy Wall in 1976, "Can there be economic reform without social and political reform?"

But put human rights and democracy aside for a moment. Instead, as Deep Throat said, "Follow the money."

The issues begin to come home when you stop and consider for a moment export of goods made by Chinese prison labor. Consider Peter B. Levy, for instance, president of Labelon/Noesting Co., maker of paper clips and office fasteners, of Mount Vernon, NY. When he couldn't figure out how a competing Chinese paperclip company was undercutting his prices -- making them for less than the cost of materials! -- he went to China himself and found out: prison labor.

True, American prisons create products: but for domestic use only. They're not exported into the global marketplace. And money and industry have become transnational, global. If Asia can undercut Western capital, capital follows the bottom line.

Workers in the Philippines might hear, "Hurry up! Work harder! Don't complain about hours, safety, wages. If you don't like it, the contract will go to China." In neighboring Thailand, they say, "If you don't like it, the work will go to the Philippines." And, yes, in Boston, they can say, "If you don't like it, the work will go to Thailand." As well it might. So sub-standards can lower standards all on down the line -- economically and morally.

For prison labor, substitute "concentration camp labor." This is no hyperbole, my friends. The main difference between the Chinese lao gai (prison work camps) and Hitler's was that in the latter eugenics terminated the workers; in China, they can work themselves to death.

Now don't get me wrong. This is the end of May, when America discusses its foreign policy towards China (or lack of one). I'm all for renewing MFN (Most Favored Nation status) for China and continuing exchanges on all levels. But I'd hate to see it at the expense of folks like Peter B. Levy. Sure, I can appreciate a discount on office supplies as well as the next guy. But I have to draw a moral line beside my ledger's bottom line; a moral benchmark, if you will. In the long run, it's more profitable.

  • --Gary Gach (ggg@well.com) is the author of Buddha Poems from Beat to Hiphop, Pocket Guide to the Internet, and writers.net: Every Writer's Essential Guide to Online Resources and Opportunities.

    see also

  • Laogai Research Foundation.

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