The Last Gulag

Revelations about China's brutal labor camps raise questions about Bush's tolerance for Beijing Watchtowers and brick walls line the lonely gray highway between Qinghai and Tibet in northwestern China. In the fields, the prisoners, in tattered blue uniforms, shuffle to work under the harsh gaze of their guards. Most of the inmates in China's labor reform camps are common criminals; but according to secret Chinese documents obtained by NEWSWEEK, perhaps 100,000 of the estimated 10 million denizens of China's prisons have been jailed for nothing more than opposing the government in Beijing. Many, like Li Lin, a labor activist, were arrested in the crackdown that followed the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Li endured months of beatings, psychological abuse and forced labor. "The prison was so horrible," Li told NEWSWEEK in Hong Kong, where he lives now, thanks to an international campaign to win his release. "I thought I'd never get out..." Many never do. Some prisoners are kept at work long after their sentences: the authorities call it "forced job placement."

Communism is crumbling in the Soviet Union. But it is alive and well inside the thousands of remote prison camps and detention centers that dot the Chinese countryside. China is the last major communist state, and its penal system is the last gulag. "The labor reform camps are the reason China is so stable," says Harry Wu, a Hoover Institute scholar who was incarcerated in China for 19 years and secretly revisited more than 20 camps last summer to document the horrifying conditions (page 30). The threat of the gulag helps Beijing keep a lid on political dissent: economic reforms have brought brisk growth, but political freedom is still unknown.

China's human-rights abuses are an embarrassing foreign-policy dilemma for President Bush. Like Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon, Bush has downplayed Chinese repression in the interest of maintaining Beijing as a strategic ally. Bush, who was Gerald Ford's diplomatic emissary to Beijing in the mid-'70s, clearly feels a deep personal investment in the U.S.-China relationship. He has been on the defensive lately, battling congressional calls for sanctions against China. But officials say he won't budge: "It is safe to say that the president is deeply disappointed by the behavior of the Chinese," says one senior administration official. "It is also safe to say that as long as the situation does not get worse, U.S. policy will remain the same.

Hoping to protect its relationship with Washington, Beijing has tried to hide what goes on inside China's prisons. But recently released prisoners confirm that for millions of convicts, life consists of little more than a handful of corncakes a day, routine beatings and two trips to the toilet. An estimated 3 million inmates, "sentenced" to "labor reeducation," have had no trial. They labor in factories, where they are beaten if they don't fill their daily production quotas. Wu estimates that hundreds of thousands of exconvicts still endure "forced labor," earning only 6O percent of a normal salary. They live just outside the prison walls but are forbidden to return home.

There are far fewer political prisoners than in Chairman Mao's day, when millions at a time were arrested and sent away without trial. And for the most part, prisoners aren't starving to death the way they did during the 1960s famine. Since Deng Xiaoping launched his reforms more than a decade ago, he has encouraged the development of at least the semblance of a legal system. But even Chinese documents admit that the prisons regularly flout laws regulating treatment of prisoners.

Now, evidence that China is exporting gulag goods-everything from wrenches to steel pipes and denim--can only make it harder for Bush to defend the special relationship. Bush recently told Montana Democratic Sen. Max Baucus that he had been given assurances that Beijing would take ,'steps" to stop the illegal trade. But a U.S. official familiar with the question told NEWSWEEK he has no idea what steps, if any, the Chinese have actually taken. The State Department has just reassigned all of its personnel working on prisons and prison labor. Officials call it a routine move.

Before Tiananmen, the Chinese openly acknowledged their use of prison labor: reports put the value of exports produced by inmates at between $100 million and $150 million. But after the protests, Beijing, fearful of jeopardizing its Most Favored Nation trading status, has repeatedly denied such exports exist. In May, Chinese Ambassador to the United States Zhu Qizhen said, "Reform-through-labor units are not allowed to do any export business at all." But just months after that, Wu secretly videotaped conversations with prison wardens who export their products to the United States.

China's prison trade is an offshoot of Deng's efforts to liberalize the country's economy, which made prisons responsible for their own financial survival. The Shanghai Number Seven Labor Reform Detachment, known to the outside world as the Laodong Steel Pipe Works, brags in its glossy brochure that its steel pipe has been exported to Southeast Asia, South America, the United States, Japan and West Germany. According to a June 1990 article in an official internal-use-only criminal justice journal, the New Life Cotton Cloth Mill, a prison factory in coastal Jiangsu province, earned $28.5 million from exports between 1983 and 1988. According to the article's author, the factory has exported its underwear and cotton cloth to Japan, the United States and Germany.

Chinese documents show the government has actually encouraged prison exports. According to the internal criminal-justice journal, export authorities helped the New Life Cotton Cloth Mill obtain a low-interest loan from Japan. The 1989 Shandong Yearbook brags that the province's labor-reform manufacturers have "made a great effort to develop a foreign-oriented economy." Another internal paper shows that Beijing's Ministry of Foreign Economic Relations and Trade gave a prize to the Beishu Labor Reform Detachment for its export products.

Realpolitik, not human-rights concerns, shaped the current U.S.-China relationship. Two decades ago, when Henry Kissinger undertook his first secret mission to China, both countries wanted to use each other against an apparently expansionist Soviet Union. The Chinese also offered intelligence assistance. In 1980 America and China established stations, operated by Chinese personnel, on the Soviet border to monitor Soviet underground tests and missile firings. The stations are still believed to be operational. The Chinese supplied strategic rare metals and minerals for U.S. weapons manufacturing. They furnished Chinese-version MiG-21 fighter jets for use in U.S. military exercises. They allowed port visits by U.S. military vessels. They helped supply arms to the Afghan rebels.

Until the Tiananmen protests, the "China card" was basically a bipartisan policy: in 1986 congressional hearings, Democrats cited China for progress in human rights. Since the crackdown, however, the debate over China has come to resemble the battle over South Africa, with President Bush advocating what amounts to a policy of "constructive engagement," and critics in Congress arguing that only sanctions will force the Chinese leadership to change.

But larger forces may be shifting against the Washington-Beijing relationship. The collapse of Soviet communism reduces the need to use China as a counterweight to Moscow. Meanwhile, China is behaving less like a partner in an anti-Soviet marriage of convenience, and more as a regional power out to protect its own interests. In response to U.S. wishes, China did abstain from opposing the gulf war in the U.N. Security Council, but the Chinese have offered mostly token gestures when it comes to human rights. On trade, U.S. officials say China has imposed 43 new barriers to U.S. products this year-at a time when China is running an estimated $13 billion trade surplus with the United States. China's nuclear experts have trained-if not supplied-their counterparts in Pakistan and Iran. Despite a direct appeal from Washington, the Chinese agreed to sell M-9 and M-11 missiles to Syria and Pakistan.

Bush has quietly taken a few steps to chide China. In April he signaled U.S. Trade Representative Carla Hills that she could threaten Beijing with trade sanctions. This spring, with the MFN vote near, he announced new sanctions on high-technology satellite-part exports to China, in retribution for Chinese missile sales, and he expressed support for Taiwan's bid to join the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, an honor Beijing wanted first. Bush's shift is mostly political damage control. The president will still fight to preserve MFN, which he sees as vital to nurturing the next generation of Chinese leaders. Indeed, he is so certain of his approach that he has violated his own ban on "high level" diplomatic contacts by meeting with the Chinese ambassador.

Even if Bush were willing to lean harder on China, it's unclear how effective U.S. pressure might be. The past two years have been a time of quiet crisis for China: in addition to perennial leadership squabbles, it has a spiraling domestic budget deficit. Beijing's edicts often have little effect in the provinces; a market economy is going strong along the country's coast. To some analysts, such as former U.S. ambassador to Beijing James Lilley, this makes China ripe for carefully applied pressure. Wu and Asia Watch, a human-rights organization, hope to push China's human-rights abuses onto the president's agenda; they want Bush to place conditions onto China's MFN status. But others contend that neither sanctions nor friendly persuasion has much impact inside the Forbidden City. Says Harvard University's Roderick MacFarquhar: "The U.S. could question China's human rights, but that won't force them to release people who they think are dangerous." If so, there will be no labor shortage in the last gulag.