Fan Shidong is a Chinese dissident from Shanghai arrested and sent to prison for talking to American officials in 1983 and released in 1994. He went to Hong Kong after his release and is now living in the Seattle area. He wrote a series of 6 articles which was published in the Sing Tao Daily from June 24 to 29, 1998 and spoke at Berkeley and Stanford as a visiting scholar. Professor Norm Matloff and I translated his article as below.
The Laogai Debate as Relates to Deng Xiaoping and Zhu Rongji
In his most recent meeting with the Voice of America reporters, Harry Wu made an interesting comment. He said, "Our difference with James Seymour et al lies in the following. Seymour only refers to those prison inmates that have been sentenced by the Chinese courts. We count as inmates not only those sentenced but also the dependents in prison camps, those forced to remain and work at those camps and juvenile delinquents. Some have served their term but is forced to remain with the prison team and still deprived of their personal freedom."
Wu's comment raises some questions. What does he mean by personal freedom and by what standard? Everybody knows that a long period in mainland China, all manners of control were imposed. Not just on prison inmates, but during the cultural revolution, the movement of all sorts of people were restricted. No one can leave their place of residence or work place without notifying and getting permission. It was not just those in stockades that were without freedom, even ordinary citizens were subjected to layers of government control.
During the cultural revolution tens of thousands of students were sent to the countryside without any choice; they were no different from those forced to stay and work at the prison farms after release. Everybody's individual freedom were taken away to varying degrees. Hundreds of million Chinese, the majority of the population, suffered from loss of freedom. By Wu's standard, nearly everybody in China would qualify as being a laogai inmate. Zhu Rongji in cadre school, Deng Xiaoping under house arrest would qualify as those deserving salute by Wu's Laogai Research Foundation.
Maybe it's not consider an exaggeration to add the years of forced service at the prison camp on top of three years of prison sentence and thus become a 19 year hero and laogai surviver. Why not? Everybody in China has the chance to declare having been a laogai surviver and claim the accolade of a hero.
Is there a limit to Laogai Economics?
During the debate between Seymour and Wu, one of the major issues is the contribution of laogai economics to the national GDP. Seymour said, "Some claims that without laogai, China's economy would collapse. There is no evidence to support such a statement." Seymours presents economic estimates that show output from laogai is but a tiny part of the national GDP. His calculations are based on incomplete data reported by the Chinese judicial authorities. Are these estimates reliable? I believe there is a high probability that they are overstated. Actual production from the prison system is likely much smaller than reported. While not completely believable, the estimates are at least better than those made up out of thin air.
Even today, filing falsify reports is still common place because it is not considered a crime. The central government and the Beijing municipal government frequently resorts to falsified data to lie and the people also resorts to false data to lie to the governement. This is a prevailing condition in China. Even so, there are not many that go to such extremes as turning three years in a prison camp into 19 years of laogai residency.
There are three main reasons why the data from China's prison authority are exaggerated or in error. (1) Towards the end 1980's, the government begin an incentive award system whereby for prisons that meet their production targets, the prison guards and administrators are entitled to share part of the profits as reward. About 10 to 30% of the profit is allocated as bonus. Therefore, the extent of overreporting of their production value and profit directly affect the bonus pool for the management of each prison.
Second, most of the production from prisons are not subject to tax or very little tax. The value reported to the tax authorities is frequently different from the value reported to the central judicial authorities. Both authorities tolerate this practice. The central judicial authorities want to boast about their achievements and the tax authorities have no desire to offend the judiciary.
Thirdly, the promotion of officials within the judiciary is the same as other departments. Namely by their work related performance. Hence another motivation to overreport. These reports are consolidated and report up the line. No one is particularly intersted in verifying those numbers reported. A direct consequence is the further infringement of the prisoners' basic human rights.
A numercial example would clarify matters. Suppose a laogai team earned an actual profit of ¥100,000 but was reported as having a profit of ¥200,000. If the prison authorities are entitled to a bonus of 20% of the profit, they will keep ¥40,000 or double the amount they are entitled based on actual profit. In effect they kept 40%. Part of the remainder is allocated as working capital and for management fees and other expenses. Whatever is leftover is then the budget for the prisoners meals. Since most of the other expenses are more or less fixed, the additional bonus payment comes directly out of the mouths of the prisoners.
Since the local prison authorities have other ways to increase their take at the expense of the prisoners, the meal budget of most prisons are only about 1/3 of the standard set by the central judiciary authorities. Virtually all of China's prisons suffer from this hidden deprivation and injustice. Thus the actual living standards of prisoners in China is lower than that set by the Judicial Ministry, and lower than international standards. In some prisons, the prisoners suffer from long term under-nourishment and must depend on supplement from relatives.
Therefore, the data from prison authorities can only be overblown. This tendency is exactly opposite to those profit making enterprises motivated to underreport revenue and reduce tax liability.
"China's economy can not do without the laogai's economy," seems to be Harry Wu's mantra. He is saying that China's laogai is an essential and basic part of its national economy. Trading with China is to help China's laogai economy and therefore become accomplices in oppressing China's political prisoners.
It's obvious Wu has powerful backers, but who are they?
These assessments did not originate from Wu. Just like Fiedler, Wu is just a low ranking worker bee and lack the qualifications and authority to make comments on political matters that rightfully belonging to those in power.
There are times when Wu gets so carried away that even President Clinton is dismissed. One source of his arrogance is his powerful supporters in the U.S. Congress. But this did not keep Seymour to singlehandedly said directly to the experts and scholars in Hong Kong, "I believe there are many in Senate and House that are irresponsible and make statements that are not factual. This approach will not help in improving human rights in China. Not only the Chinese authorities find justifiable grounds to ignore the criticism but can be used to argue that China has no human rights problems." Therefore, he emphasized that when criticizing China's human rights problems, "exaggeration is counter effective." (South China Morning Post, 3/12/98) Seymour did not hold back. In his book, he said, "Once World Bank invested in Xinjiang, the Bank became the whipping boy for Wu and (Senator) Helms."
Mr. Helms is the current Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; what is his relationship with Harry Wu? Is he Wu's patron? No way of knowing. But some things are easy to see, Wu is not incompetent. I believe even the Chinese public security would not deny that Wu possess exceptional abilities exceeding most cadres and dissidents. He has a quick mind and boldness, and is a highly productive doer. Whether his motivation to make trouble for China has to do with revenge, or to make a living, or to achieve fame with profit, or all of the above, is a question we can defer momentarily. Whether he is successful in making trouble also can be deferred for now. What's evident is that his tooth for tooth mission rely on underhanded, in the gutter approach, the same treatment he suffered under the Mao Communist regime.
There are many former laogai immates who suffered in the hands Chinese authorities that may have initially applauded Wu's action as striking a blow on all their behalf. I too had an initially favorable impression of Wu thinking that after coming to America he is still concerned about the suffering of prisoners in China. Because Wu can do such good deeds, it is small wonder that American politicians like him and pat him on the shoulder. However, when assessing Wu, they are careful not to go overboard. "Courageous" and "capable" type of praise is what bosses customarily give to their workers. Has anyone praise him for being sincere, honest, trustworthy, gentlemanly, not being a liar, upright character, etc.? Who would consider someone that cannot speak truthfully as a trustworthy friend or as honored person worthy of respect? At the same time, Wu would not let them onto his secrets or let them see his basis. He is realistic and knows full well that they do not trust him.
Seymour is, therefore, quite proper in including Wu's Washington supporters when he criticizes Wu. Sure, Wu is not factual, but the world is full of liars. Wu's exaggerations are not subtle, anyone with slightest analysis can see the flaws and inconsistencies. For anyone of average intellect to buy-in is clear indication of other political agenda or intentions. Therefore, Wu should not be recipient of all the blame.
As the smoke clears from Wu's debate with Seymour, Wu's falsehood and Laogai Research Foundation's basis for deception are exposed. Perhaps many members of Congress in both Houses choose to believe the falsehoods and innuendos because of the need to influence American policy towards China from a particular historical perspective, reflecting the U.S. mainstream's distrust and doubt toward China during this period of transition and reform. But then the exchange of visits between Presidents Jiang Zemin and Bill Clinton marks the conclusion of twenty years of uneasy U.S.-China relationship and the beginning of new chapter of history. In this new era, the bilateral relationship will be increasingly stable and friendly, and witness increasing exchanges and cooperation. Thus, mutual doubt and distrust will gradually decrease.
Clinton recently again emphasized, "Isolation of China will not work." and "Engagement with China is the best way to promote our interest." If Wu and his laogai tales are nurtured by Uncle Sam's previous doubt and suspicions. Then to dispel these doubts now would require someone with impeccable reputation and position. Thus the way is opened for Seymour and his co-author.
We believe, even as US-China relation continues to improve and grow closer, criticism and promotion of human rights in China will remain a part of the U.S. policy towards China. We hope that the criticism will be based on facts and reality. Wu's false accusations should not serve as basis for U.S. criticism. Only criticism based on actual reality will be valid, effective and powerful.
Who is Wu helping and making trouble for?
Even though Wu's recent acts of deception have been effective in attracting mainstream media and public's attention, such acts are not helpful to the West toward understanding and evaluating the real situation about China's prison system and prisoner's human rights. The U.S. government also cannot use false accusations to ask China to fess up and thus apply pressure for reform. The Chinese government is not open and frank about many of their human rights problems. They won't even admit some real deficiencies much less admit to Wu's fabrications. Thus Wu not only has not made trouble for China, he also has not help the U.S. cause.
Seymour views this from another perspective. He said, "We not only do not need to resort to gross exaggeration, the adaptation of such approach is counter effective." This statement is indeed profound. Seymour as an American is not only concerned with human rights in China but is even more concerned with the image and reputation of his own country. If Americans continue to remain quiet in face of Wu's exaggerations and distortions, eventually the reputation of the U.S. as the champion of democracy would be damaged. Seymour is reminding the American public to pay attention to its own image and draw a clear distinction between fact and fiction. Otherwise, the day will come when intellectuals that are guardians of American value and cultural will be challenged as to why they ignored the antics of Harry Wu. They will be asked whether America willingly sacrifices their basic integrity and values for certain political positioning. Seymour clearly hopes that such a tainted chapter can be avoided in America's history.
Some feel that by objecting to anyone criticizing China is to help China. Many who can't stand Wu's activity do not take action to expose him because of this concern. Many other so called human rights activists show support for Wu solely to reaffirm their own political position. This overlooks the advantage afforded to the Chinese government. If they are accused of human rights abuses based on fabrications with hostile motives, they are given the opening to take high moral grounds and ignore the criticism and even find justifications to deny any infringment of human rights.
Objectively speaking, Wu's approach of making mountains out of mole hills actually helps the Chinese government maintain the poor human rights record. Main reason is that by exaggerating China's human rights abuses by 100 fold, gradually people will realize that 99% of the acusations have no basis in fact. At that point the anger towards the actual 1% of real abuses will have dissipated and perhaps turn to sympathy for the Chinese government. Ironically Wu's action serves to confirm that a lot of the world's criticism of China's human rights are based on false premises.
One example is the grossly exaggerated head count of prisoners in China and the politics of laogai economics.
Another is the TV program made by Wu and BBC which claims that all the apparel on the stalls in an unidentified street in Xinjiang are made by military laogai there. The reality is that cloths prisoners have to wear are dependent on being sent to them by their family. Wu also said certain cemetery in Xinjiang contains only graves of prisoners. This of course was false which he himself later admitted.
Consequently, the people of the world will not easily accept any accusations of human rights abuses in China. They will say if Wu, who has done the most authoritative research on China's laogai, can only utter nonsense and lies, how can anyone have any authentic issues to raise? Therefore, Wu's western looking glass has actually helped China and make trouble for the U.S. government. In the end, it's the prisoners in China that are harmed, their human rights conditions will not experience any improvement.
China's prisoner human rights problem has been led to a blind alley
Even though China's National People's Congress has been making progress legislating laws, human rights abuses and conditions in China's prisons are still terrible. Prisoners do not have enough to eat, with excessive work load, and crime rate inside the prison is serious--most of which perpetuated by the prison guards. The brutal and tyrannical practices inside Chinese prison system truly defies accurate description. I am a personal witness to these lawless practices which can be found in Seymour's recent book. These prison conditions are not unknown to Harry Wu who spent over ten years in Tuanhe prison farm outside of Beijing. In his earlier books, "586" and "Bitter Winds," he accurately described the dismal conditions of the prison system. We felt he did this very well and accurately identified the essential violations. He was also successful in calling the world's attention to China's human rights problems in their prison system. However in recent years, his hot button is to stop Chinese made prison goods from exporting to the U.S., to investigate the sale of organs from Chinese prisoners and to disrupt the investment of World Bank in China's backward northwest region. These problems have no direct relevance to alleviating human rights abuses in China's prison; some even hurt the cause of human rights for Chinese prisoners.
U.S. laws forbid import of prison made goods, but export of prison made goods is not restricted by international regulations. The U.S. can rightfully ask China not to export such goods to the U.S. but has no basis to ask China to stop exporting to elsewhere in the world. From the prisoners' point of view, they need to work to eat. They are also looking for more profitable form of labor and certainly are not concerned with whether the goods are exported or not. If markets for prison made goods are taken away, the prisoners are still expected to work and may end up having to take on more arduous work and bear greater hardship. Thus from a long term view, even if the objective is to change the prison economics and stop export of prison made goods, the welfare of the prisoners needs to be dealt with first.
The benefit for sale of organs from executed prisoners is not just for Chinese officials but also for the many patients, so that complete stoppage is not necessarily the best solution. The answer is to ask the Chinese authorities to set the regulations requiring the advanced permission of the condemned prisoners and protection of the rights of the immediate relatives so as to unify the practice according to law and render the procedure public. This matter really impact very few, around some tens of prisoners each year so that this is not a crucial question affecting human rights in China. About the same number are murdered by prison guards each year. In the 11 years I was in prison, there were three who were beaten to death by the guards.
Just because China's northwest region holds laogai prison camps, Wu opposes World Bank financing of irrigation projects. This is not justified and can directly harm the welfare of the prisoners detained there. To eat, prisoners need to plant and need to water and need to use advanced quipment and technology to increase yield. Instead of reforming the prison system, Wu's protest will only deprive prisoners of potential benefits.
Wu's three emphasis in recent years as described above has directed the world's attention away from the real problems relating to survival and humane treatment. The confusion he causes leads to the world wide impression that the basic problems of surviving and prisoner treatment have been resolved. If Wu could really think about the tragic conditions of the prisoners and expend one-tenth of his foundation income for the direct benefit of the prisoners, I probably would still not feel the need to expose him. But he has strayed too far from work on behalf of China's human rights and even betrayed the Harry Wu of the '60s and '70s who also suffered from beatings and deprivations of a prisoner.
Why break Wu's smelly western looking glass?
Harry Wu's greatest accomplishment is no more than creating what Shanghai people disdainfully called a western looking glass, i.e., a funhouse mirror. In the hearts of oversea Chinese, the stench of this mirror has been obvious for a long time. So is it worth the effort to expose him? I think so and sooner the better.
If we don't destroy this funhouse mirror, sooner or later the Chinese Communist will. If we let them expose Wu, all the oversea dissidents and activists will lose face. If we do this ourselves, at least we can assure the world that not all are syncophants reflecting only whatever the West wants to hear.
If we don't destroy this funhouse mirror, the American will sooner or later realize the truth. For them to reject this funhouse mirror is for us Chinese to lose face. If we expose this fakery, at least we can send a message to the world that not all dissidents are bullshit artists. It's not that America lacks people like Harry Wu that bullshits with no concern for documentation. At least we can then say that we Chinese have no admiration for people of that sort, would not employ them much less give them honorary doctorate degrees.
Finally and most important of all, only after we break Wu's funhouse mirror can the West truly see and understand the actual conditions of Chinese prisons and human rights needs of the prisoners. The prison conditions are still harsh. Every minute, there will be many prisoners that will suffer from starvation, beatings and demeaning treatment. We need to work hard with not a minute to lose.
The dehumanizing treatment of prisoners will harden their hatred toward society and heighten their criminal tendencies. Upon release they are likely to commit greater crimes and thus increase the harm to society. This is a world wide problem. True prison reform must begin with basic respect for the human rights of the prisoner. We should take action not only for humanitarian reason but the future benefit of the society as a whole. This is particularly critical for China during its persent transitional period with high potential for instability and is the primary reason for my commentary.