The Peoples Republic of China drew plenty of international scorn for barring jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo, as well as his wife and brothers, from traveling to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize earlier this month—and rightly so. As The Washington Post reminds us, “Only once before has the peace prize been awarded without anyone to receive it—in 1936, when Adolf Hitler prevented German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky from attending.”
What’s surprising is that anyone is surprised by the Chinese government’s backwardness and thuggery. This is, after all, a regime that took 60 years to get the history of the Korean War right. After insisting that the war began when “the United States assembled a United Nations army of 15 countries and defiantly marched across the border and invaded North Korea,” the Chinese government conceded only this year that “On June 25, 1950, the North Korean army marched over the 38th parallel and started the attack.”
Moreover, this is a regime that jails its own citizens for daring to speak the truth. That’s why Liu Xiaobo is under arrest. That’s why he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. And that’s why the bullies who run Beijing have detained his family.
Liu Xiaobo was one of hundreds of courageous Chinese citizens to draft and sign a declaration of freedom for their country. Dubbed “Charter 08”—a reference to Charter 77, a similar document that freedom-minded Czechoslovakians released in 1977 to challenge their communist rulers—the Chinese document criticizes the PRC for its “authoritarian power…endemic official corruption…crony capitalism [and] growing inequality between the wealthy and the poor” and challenges the people and their government to work together to transform China into a democracy.
Charter 08 calls for democratic control over the government and civilian control over the military, an end to indoctrination in schools, protection of taxpayer rights, peaceful reunification with Taiwan, and release of political prisoners. The charter demands respect for human rights and, in an echo of the U.S. Constitution, declares, “Human rights are not bestowed by a state.” It envisions a republican, democratic government for China, noting that “Political power begins with the people and the legitimacy of a regime derives from the people.” It recognizes the importance of a constitution and the rule of law for “limiting and defining the scope of legitimate government power and providing the administrative apparatus necessary to serve these ends.” And it concludes, “Without freedom China will always remain far from civilized ideals.”
In short, it’s no surprise that Beijing is threatened by Liu Xiaobo.
As Vaclav Havel, who helped lay the groundwork for the implosion of communism in Eastern Europe by co-authoring Charter 77, has observed, “The response of the Chinese authorities to Charter 08 in many ways parallels the Czechoslovak government’s response to Charter 77.”
Liu Xiaobo knows this firsthand.
The sad reality is that uncounted millions of Liu’s countrymen know the scourge of their government’s tyranny firsthand. They suffer beyond our gaze in what are known as laogai camps. Laogai means “reform through labor,” and the communist regime in Beijing uses its vast network of laogai prison factories to control its population.
The Economist magazine concluded in the 1990s that at least 1,164 laogai camps dot China’s territory, and The London Telegraph reports that up to 10 percent of laogai detainees are political prisoners. Today, the laogai population numbers between 6 and 20 million. In other words, China may control a workforce larger than Spain’s and nearly as large as that of France—a workforce that is paid nothing for its labor.
In this forced-labor system, we catch a glimpse of the ugly underside of free trade without conscience, and this is where China’s labor camps affect us directly, even tainting our own Christmas season. The camps produce everything from tea to engine parts. Considering the religious reasons for many laogai sentences, it is a sickening irony that the camps also produce rosaries, winter apparel, Christmas lights, ornaments and toys—all for export.
Most of what the West knows about the laogai is due to the work of Harry Wu, a humble human-rights activist who survived the laogai prison factories but refuses to be called a hero. “I am a survivor,” he told me plaintively in a 2006 interview, “not a hero.”
As a graduate student studying geology in China, Wu made the mistake of criticizing the communist regime in 1960. He was then sentenced to the laogai, where he would spend the next two decades of his life.
“Laogai and freedom and democracy are incompatible,” Wu explains. “To maintain the totalitarian regime, you need something like laogai. If China becomes a democratic country, it will not need this sort of suppression mechanism. The people will be allowed to disagree with the government and share their views.”
Earlier this year, Beijing announced that it was considering closing the laogai camps. However, if the PRC’s treatment of Liu Xiaobo, reaction to Charter 08 and laughably-late acceptance of the reality of the Korean War are any indication, we shouldn’t expect the bullies in Beijing to step out of the darkness anytime soon—but perhaps 60 Christmases from now.
Alan Dowd writes on defense and security.