- New Ghosts Old Ghosts: Prisons and Labour Reform Camps in China
The conditions in China's prisons are among the most sensitive, and also among the most misunderstood, of the many human rights issues that affect foreign perceptions of the PRC. Readers of firsthand reports by former inmates such as Jean Pasqalini (Bao Ruowang) and Pu Ning recoil at depictions of the brutal conditions that characterized China's prison system of years past. More recent exposés by Harry Wu and others have brought China's prison system—and particularly the "reform-through-labor," or laogai apparatus—to the center of China's political and economic relations with the outside world. Seymour and Anderson's book on the laogai system in the Northwest provinces of Gansu, Xinjiang, and Qinghai represents a groundbreaking effort to bring empirical rigor and scholarly scrutiny to bear on the issue of prisons and labor reform camps in the PRC.
The authors have achieved a marvelous balance between rejecting the hyperbole evident in some reporting on China's prisons, and retaining a fundamental commitment to the imperative of humane treatment for prison inmates—at once castigating China's violations of the human rights of criminal defendants while also noting improvements in China's prison system and decrying unsupported rhetoric attacking the laogai system. The authors provide a range of statistical [End Page 534] data gathered from Chinese published sources on inmate populations and economic outputs of prisons in the three Northwest provinces. Of particular interest are the varying proportions of local and nonlocal inmates. China's practice of sending particularly difficult convicts to the Northwest from other provinces has resulted in a large proportion of nonlocal inmates in Xinjiang and Qinghai. This also helps to contribute to a high rate of imprisonment in comparison with the local population. Those nonlocals who served as informants for Seymour and Anderson's research provide insights on conditions in the Northwest China prison system in comparison with the rest of the country. The proportion of local inmates on the other hand helps explain some aspects of the harshness of prison regimes. In Xinjiang in particular, the large number of local inmates and the treatment they receive are affected in part by official crackdowns on separatist activities among nationalistic Uyghurs and by a concomitant effort to mete out harsh punishments in response to these activities.
The case studies of Gansu, Xinjiang, and Qinghai also permit comparisons to be drawn among the regimes in these three areas. Xinjiang comes in for particular criticism—harsh conditions, inadequate food, little if any attention to education and rehabilitation of inmates, and, most particularly, rampant corruption among prison officials contribute to the authors' view that prison conditions in Xinjiang remain well below minimally acceptable standards. Qinghai on the other hand, despite being a significantly poorer province than Xinjiang, is described as pursuing relatively enlightened policies regarding, for example, prison administration, education for prisoners, and early release.
The authors devote considerable time to explaining the economics of the laogai—as embodied in the bingtuan system. The authors conclude that despite efforts to make the system self-sustaining, few if any prison farms earn a profit. Nonetheless, the emphasis on productivity has resulted in little if any attention being paid to the rehabilitation and education of prisoners; instead virtually all effort is geared toward production. This helps to explain why, in the authors' view, there is no correlation between the economic conditions in the provinces studied and the conditions in the prisons—Xinjiang is relatively strong economically but has the most deplorable conditions in its prisons.
While the empirical description of prison conditions and policies in Northwest China would by itself represent a major contribution to our understanding of China's prison system, the authors provide additional analytical insights by assessing the Northwest laogai system in the context of China's human rights obligations more generally. Challenging the work of Melbourne University political scientist Michael Dutton (Policing and Punishment in China...