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On Legitimacy: How the Prison-Labor Complex Changes with the Political Terrain in China


The dissertation is centered on the dispute over the prison-enterprise dichotomy in the discourse of CCP administration and the scholarly discussion resulted from the financial crisis of the Chinese prison system in 2003. The official statements and the relevant studies by Chinese scholars have demonstrated their endogenous limitations that the prison system in China needs to be either in the form of combination of prison and enterprise or in the form of their separation for adapting itself to the tremendous shift in the state’s economic structure. Instead, setting off from a viewpoint of the school of punishment and society, the dissertation aims to take the historical, economic, legal and political parameters into consideration and then to unveil the full picture of penal labor camps in the Chinese socialist society.

The dissertation employs a historical institutionist approach as the main theoretical backbone, trying to clarify the formation and development of the carceral mechanism from an economic point of view and to match the carceral strategies utilized by the state with the CCP regime’s legitimation plans in different periods of time. The dissertation finds that the prison system functioned with other social institutions as a massive social control mechanism in the pre-reform age; its orientation of special state-owned enterprise and its usage of forced labor as punishment made itself a prison-labor complex that allowed it to stand the following grand transformation in the economic structure. When in the post-reform era the prison system moved towards three distinct directions: its economic role was emphasized, its organization was restructured for the economic adjustments, and it underwent a large-scale legal reform. Finally, the dissertation finds that these changes of the prison system over time can be placed on the trajectory of the CCP’s legitimation plans when the CCP regime faced crises in different periods.

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