Escaping China’s Gulag

Flora Sapio is a China law scholar whose main research interests are criminal justice and administrative detention. She is a research assistant professor in the Faculty of Law, Chinese University of Hong Kong and the author of Sovereign Power and the Law in China (Brill, 2010). — The Editors

In January 2013 Meng Jiangzhu 孟建柱, secretary of the Central Political Legal Committee, stated to the press that re-education through labour would cease to be used (tingzhi shiyong 停止使用) by the end of the year. The statement was reiterated at the Third Plenum of the Eighteenth Party Congress which also announced that the abolition of re-education through labour would coincide with the promulgation of a law on the punishment and correction of minor offences and the restructuring of community correction programmes.

The word ‘abolition’ was picked up by even the most sceptical of commentators. We haven’t seen the draft Community Correction Law (shequ jiaozhengfa 社区矫正法), a law partly inspired by American and Australian legislation, and which may or may not be similar to the recent Measures Implementing Community Corrections (shequ jiaozheng shishi banfa 社区矫正实施办法). Thus we do not know whether and how all those misdemeanors punished through re-education will be decriminalized. There are those who believe that cessation of re-education through labour will automatically and inevitably lead to a sprawling of quasi-private secret prisons.

Such is the power of words. They shape the questions we pose and sometimes predetermine our answers too: they make and unmake they way we perceive the world around us.

In Stalin’s Russia in 1930, the Joint State Political Directorate, better known by its acronym OGPU, came to control prisons, transit camps, and labour camps. The Soviet correctional system became known in the West as the gulag in 1973. Yet the Chief Administration of Corrective Labour Camps – the agency designated by the acronym GULAG – had been disbanded eighteen years earlier. By 1960 most camps had been closed down, with the notable exception of camps holding political criminals. The last of them, Perm-36, would close in 1987.

The acronym GULAG had lost much of its original meaning by the time it became a common word to designate those places where persons who maintain, express or act upon certain political views are detained. In this sense, the gulag remains a meaningful word as long as there are political communities that are born out of violence – whether a civil war, a revolution, or any cause that calls for killing, imprisoning, expelling or ‘reforming’ human beings.

In Chinese studies, the use of ‘gulag’ has been limited to an analogy in which Chinese re-education institutions are likened to Soviet camps. This analogy has made it more difficult to use re-education as the starting point for broader reflections in political philosophy. Also, it has forged a deep divide between Chinese studies, penology and criminology.—Flora Sapio


We are accustomed to use the term ‘Gulag’ as a metaphor and in this regard, the Gulag that has been made for our minds is a Gulag without physical barriers, walls or fences, invisible yet present all around us. This Gulag is delimited by ideas and representations that we use to know what exists out there in the real world.

In the West, Ernest Alabster and Jean Escarra pioneered the study of Chinese prisons. They were shocked not so much by the different function prisons played in China’s legal system but by their overcrowding and filth. Their concerns, no doubt motivated by a genuine ethical response, were quickly appropriated by the Commission on Extraterritoriality. A narrative was woven around the themes of overcrowding, filth, corruption and violence and was used to support the argument that, since China could not guarantee the welfare of its prisoners, Westerners who lived in China ought to be excluded from its jurisdiction. This argument also held that China’s inability to guarantee the security of foreign trade and investment, included those in opium, further justified extraterritorial jurisdiction.

In a Chinese re-education through labour camp

In a Chinese re-education through labour camp

Sinologists of the 1950s became aware of re-education and reform through labor camps. In the ideologically polarized atmosphere of the Cold War, the PRC correctional system was portrayed as the Chinese Communist equivalent of Nazi concentration camps or of Soviet gulags. Drawing in part on the earlier discourse on prisons in imperial China, this representation provided a quick-and-easy cognitive framework for Western commentators speaking and writing about corrections in China. Today, the Gulag Narrative still resonates powerfully among a public habituated to a Battle-of-Armageddon dichotomy between the Absolute Good of Western countries and the Absolute Evil of China and its gulags.

The impact of the Gulag Narrative is enormous. I have been in somewhat surreal situations with people who talk about ‘Chinese Gulags’ within a ten-minute drive from camps where persons are held without charge or trial. Often, the people who use this term genuinely believe that Chinese people are still being re-educated by the millions and that the re-education system in China has not really changed since day one.

Such people often conflate under the broad category of ‘Gulag’ or laogai 劳改 a whole variety of correctional institutions in the PRC. They tend to condemn the Chinese correctional system on moral grounds and argue for its wholesale abolition. When in conversation with people of this persuasion, I don’t allow them to cast me in the role of devil’s advocate or Detention Guru. Instead, I normally offer them a ride to the gates of the nearest immigration detention centre, the very mention of which generally elicits utter astonishment from most. It is as if people forget that Europe also has immigration detention centers. I also find that there are those who will defend the legitimacy of ‘our’ camps with the argument that criminals, terrorists and economic migrants who disrupt fair competition in our labor market may be hiding among genuine asylum seekers. The assumption is that immigration detention is necessary in Europe, regardless of its clashes with international law. This type of reasoning is not much different from the arguments raised by early advocates of re-education through labor in China, which used to include (the now obsolete) shelter for examination and shelter for deportation.

When I make this point, I may appear to be an apologist for re-education through labor, even though my real intention is to point out that a whole complex of assumptions and misconceptions surrounds the Gulag Narrative.

We academics, too, are exposed and inured to the Gulag Narrative. We can only think about that which we know to exist, and doing research on re-education institutions is a step that normally takes place only after we have become aware of them. We may gain our awareness of re-education camps and prisons through a booklet such as the 1992 White Paper on Criminal Reform in China but how many of us are likely to believe that life in prison is all about copyrighting original works, earning college degrees, and following hypercaloric diet plans?

‘…the average prisoner consumed 22.75 kg of grain, 20-25 kg of vegetables and considerable amounts of pork, beef, mutton, fish, poultry, eggs and tofu in 1990. The average daily dietary intake of calories is 2952 Kcal per person.’[1]

Wouldn’t we find it easier to trust an account of life in the camp, such as the one in Yang Xianhui’s 杨显惠 novel, Woman from Shanghai?

‘The authorities at the camp wanted the criminals to work extra hours in the evening, but the guards objected, so the criminals never worked at night. On rainy days, the guards were reluctant to let the criminal outside because it was more difficult to monitor them in bad weather. As a result, the criminals ended up resting in their bunkhouses. Only a few of them had died of starvation and exhaustion.’[2]

Doesn’t it after all resonate with Primo Levi’s recollection of how ‘in the winter the nights are long and we are allowed a considerable interval of time to sleep’?[3] Doesn’t it comfortably fit what we already know about Lagers, what we have learned by reading books, seeing pictures of and watching movies about Lagers and gulags? So even when the terms ‘Lager’ and ‘gulag’ are not used, many of us will associate Chinese correctional institutions with the Lagers and gulags we’ve encountered in text and image.

To analyse China’s correctional system is a choice one makes freely as an academic. However, the emotional and intellectual impact of the Gulag Narrative on the making of this choice is the result of received impressions and received knowledge. Had the Gulag Narrative not existed, perhaps some of us might be working on happier topics and in fields other than criminal justice and law.

Centre for Identification and Deportation (Centro di Identificazione e Espulsione) Lampedusa, Italy.

Centre for Identification and Deportation (Centro di Identificazione e Espulsione) Lampedusa, Italy.

If the Gulag Narrative stays with us, it will drive our research on corrections in China down a very predictable path. It may, for instance, lead us to think in terms of filling some of the ‘gaps’ that still exist in our knowledge of re-education or the prison, of opening up new theoretical or empirical ground, or of correcting some of the existing biases. In any case our choices and actions will be limited by what is known, available and counts as authoritative knowledge in our field. We can criticize correctional policies on the grounds that they automatically lead to human rights abuses, or we may find fault with the existing discourse on corrections. In any case, we will be forced to articulate themes which are given in the merry-go-round of abuses-criticism-reform-abuses, a carousel first spun by studies sponsored by the US Air Force Headquarters.[4]

Over the years, the study of Chinese prisons and re-education camps by most Western authors has developed according to lines of enquiry that have resulted in its disconnect from both Chinese and Western penology and criminology; its confinement to a limited set of issues; its inability to contribute productive views to a reform debate that has remained largely domestic. Sinology has not analysed themes in China’s correctional policies as for instance, HIV/AIDS prevention, prison privatisation and other classical themes of penology and criminology, rather it has focused on single measures limiting personal freedom. Among the more than twenty such measures, special prominence has been reserved for re-education through labour and, to a more limited extent, prisons. A theme-based approach has been adopted only very recently. An example would be the analysis of the stated goals of re-education and its structural changes over time. Meanwhile, studies of prisons – once favored in Sinology – have become the preserve of historians since the 1994 Prison Law improved China’s domestic legal framework on conviction. But theme-based studies of China’s correctional policies remain few in number and moreover do not attract much public attention.

Because the Gulag Narrative has the effect of focusing our attention on prisons and re-education camps, it has obscured much of what could be said about corrections in China. The secretiveness that still surrounds the PRC correctional system no doubt contributes to this focus. Yet, even though it is extremely difficult to access information about China’s corrections system, much of the Chinese literature on corrections is now in the public domain, waiting to be used.

In this regard, we must note that analogies between gulags and Chinese re-education camps are not entirely inappropriate as the Soviet Union’s correctional system provided a model which the PRC drew upon. But we must also note that things have changed over time, and that the Supermax has now become one of the preferred models. Should we then be drawing parallels between the Supermax and Chinese prisons? How should we present an accurate account to the concerned public of what goes on in re-education through labour?  It is clear that comparing re-education through labour to Lagers and gulags effectively makes the point that the inmates are subjected to abuse, filth and violence. However, we must ensure that our capacity for judgment does not depend on concepts and representations that carry a heavy baggage of cultural and political assumptions. Alabaster and Escarra were never exposed to the Gulag Narrative, yet what they did see in the prisons of imperial China did shake their conscience. Don’t we all have the same moral capacity as them?

To think in terms of China’s Gulag is no doubt easier than to think in resistance to this idea. If we decide to stick with this idea, arguments will easily come to us and we will have a ready-made vocabulary to articulate and defend a received position. If we choose to depart from this idea, we will be navigating uncharted waters but we will also have the intellectual freedom to explore problems that the Gulag Narrative has obscured.



[1] Information Office of the State Council, Criminal Reform in ChinaAugust 1992, available on China US focus.

[2] Yang Xianhui, Woman from Shanghai: Tales of Survival from a Chinese Labor Camp, New York: Pantheon, 2003, p. 154.

[3] Primo Levi, If This Is A Man, Stuart Woolf transl., New York: The Orion Press, 1959, p. 61.

[4] Henry Wei, Courts and Police In China To 1952, Lackland Air Force base, Texas: Air Force Personnel and Training Research Centre, 1955.