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June 07, 2012

Chinese Dissident Aims to Raise Awareness of Laogai System in Tibet

by Matthew Hilburn

WASHINGTON - Chinese and Tibetan human rights advocates are teaming up in Washington this week to raise awareness of the Chinese forced-labor prison camp system, known as laogai, and its use in Tibet.

The three-day conference starting Friday comes at a time when Tibet is making headlines for a rash of nearly 40 self immolations in protest of what some Tibetans say are repressive policies in southwestern China and the Tibetan capital, Lhasa.

The laogai system is lesser known, but it’s a widely used form of repression, according to Harry Wu, who spent 19 years in a Chinese prison camp and is now the director of the Washington-based Laogai Research Foundation.

Wu said the laogai system has two functions: thought reform and forced labor. He says millions of Chinese have been held in the system since it was started in the 1950s.

While Wu has had some successes in raising awareness - the word “laogai” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2003 - he concedes there has not much U.S. interest in the issue, saying that human rights has taken a backseat to doing business in China.

He hopes that by linking the laogai system with the Tibet issue, which does have a somewhat higher profile in the United States, more people will become concerned with human rights abuses in China and Tibet.

The first day of the conference, which is co-sponsored by the International Campaign for Tibet, the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice and the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, takes place on Capitol Hill and will feature testimonies from Tibetans formerly held in the laogai system, including Tsewang Dhondup, Tubten Khetsun, Dolkar Kyap and Lukar Sham. Also speaking will be U.S. Congressmen Frank Wolf and Chris Smith, as well as Lobsang Nyandak, a representative of the Dalai Lama.

“We have to understand what the laogai system has been doing since 1949. We have to expose the laogai system in Tibet even though it’s not a part of China,” Wu said.

China now refers to the laogai simply as the prison system administration. It does not publish formal information about its prison population, but the Justice Ministry estimated about 1.5 million people were behind bars in 2005, according to local media.

Bhuchung Tsering, the vice president of special programs at The International Campaign for Tibet, said publicizing firsthand stories from laogai survivors can help not only Chinese, but Tibetans, understand the the wider laogai system.

“The challenge is to see how we can continue to put this before the public’s attention,” said Tsering. “There are people in the United States who care about Tibet, there is bipartisan support for Tibet. There will be a different perspective when they see Tibet as part of the laogai framework.”

A complete schedule of events can be seen here.