This is the seventh in a series of weekly guides to museums you might not have discovered.
At the entrance of the Laogai Museum in Dupont Circle, a small display introduces the Laogai prison system of China alongside panels of information about Nazi Germany’s concentration camps, the Soviet gulags, and the Cambodian killing fields. The much lesser-known Laogai system, designed to “punish those identified as opponents of the Communist regime,” is portrayed at the museum (founded by Harry Wu, who spent 19 years in the labor camps and created the museum because of his experiences there) as repressive and brutal. The exhibits provide a comprehensive, and at times very disturbing, history of the Laogai.
Inception Mao Zedong, inspired by the Soviet gulag model, instituted the Laogai system of forced labor in China in 1949. The Chinese Communist Party does not officially acknowledge the Laogai camps, which continue to operate.
“Reeducation through labor” The museum describes how prisoners in the Laogai are physically and psychologically coerced into accepting Communist Party ideology. “Laojiao,” which means “reeducation through labor,” is a type of administrative detention. Prisoners can be held for up to four years without formal conviction or judicial due process.
By any other name In the early 1990s, the international community’s increased awareness and criticism of the Laogai system prompted the Chinese government to rename it “Jianyu,” which translates simply to “prison.” Activists report, however, that the prisons continued to operate in the same manner.
Boxed in Visitors can see the layout of the size of a solitary confinement cell in the Qinghe prison mapped on the floor and wall of a concrete corner in the museum. The painted lines mark the size of the cell: three feet tall, three feet deep, six feet wide.
Weapons of small-scale destruction Though the exhibit on torture in China’s penal system does not contain many pictures, the information conveyed is graphic and not recommended for young children. A sign leading into this section lists the means of torture used in prisons, ranging from beatings and stress positions to pulling off fingernails and toenails, rape, forced abortion and sterilization.
“State secret” While human rights organizations and the Laogai Research Foundation estimate that thousands of executions were carried out in the prisons in 2009, the exact number carried out each year is a “state secret.”
The faces of prisoners Throughout the museum, photos and biographies of Laogai prisoners cover the walls. The displays give the name and fate of each prisoner, such as Sun Zhigang, who was arrested in March 2003 for not having proper ID on his person when he was stopped by the police. His autopsy revealed that he had been “savagely beaten to death” shortly after he was detained. Two glass walls at the end of the exhibits list the names of victims of Laogai in both English and Chinese.
Required reading Visitors can buy a number of books about the Laogai, including memoirs of former prisoners.
1734 20th Street NW. 202-408-8300. www.laogaimuseum.org. Free admission. Hours: Monday-Friday 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m.