Laogai the abbreviation for Láodòng Gǎizào (勞動改造), which means "reform through labor," is a slogan of the Chinese criminal justice system and has been used to refer to the use of prison labor in the People's Republic of China. It is often confused with, but completely different from, reeducation through labor, which is a system of administrative detentions. It is estimated that in the last 50 years more than 50 million people were sent to the prison camp.
During the 1960s, Chinese prisons contained large numbers of people who were considered to be too critical of the government or "counter-revolutionary". Prisons were organized like factories. However, many people arrested for political or religious reasons were released in the late 1970s at the start of the Deng Xiaoping reforms.
China's 1997 revised Criminal Procedure Law brought an end to official laogai policy, but some prisons in the Tibetan Autonomous Republic and in Qinghai Province still practice forced labor and amount to a continuation of laogai.
There are accusations that Chinese prisons produce products that are often sold in foreign countries, with the profits going to the PRC government. Products include everything from green tea to industrial engines to coal dug from mines. However, these products make up an insignificant amount of mainland China's export output, and it has been argued that the use of prison labor for manufacturing is not itself a violation of human rights and that most prisoners in Chinese prisons are there for what are generally regarded as crimes in the West. Western outrage at the perceived violation of human rights centers on the claims of detainees being held for political or religious violations, such as leadership of unregistered Chinese House Churches.
The downfall of socialism has reduced revenue to local governments, increasing pressure for local governments to attempt to supplement their income using prison labor. At the same time, prisoners do not make a good workforce, and the products produced by prison labor in China are of extremely low quality and have become unsalable on the open market in competition with products made by ordinary paid labor.
An insider's view from the 1950s to the 1990s is detailed in the books of Harry Wu, including Troublemaker and Laogai. He spent 19 years from 1960 to 1979 as a prisoner in these camps for criticizing the government while he was a young student in college. He almost starved to death, but eventually escaped to the United States.