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Last modified: Monday, April 27, 2009

IU professor awarded prestigious prize for book from American Historical Association

Klaus Mühlhahn writes first comprehensive study of Chinese criminal justice system

Dec. 15, 2009

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The American Historical Association has awarded the 2010 John K. Fairbank Prize in East Asian History to Indiana University historian Klaus Mühlhahn for his book Criminal Justice in China: A History. The award will be presented in January during the association's Annual Meeting in San Diego. The prize is offered annually for an outstanding book in the history of China proper, Vietnam, Chinese Central Asia, Mongolia, Manchuria, Korea, or Japan, substantially after 1800.

Muhlhahn photo

Klaus Mühlhahn

Print-Quality Photo

Criminal Justice in China: A History, published in April by Harvard University Press, is the first comprehensive examination of the Chinese criminal justice system from late imperial times to the present. The book relies on unprecedented research in Chinese archives, including classified materials, and incorporates prisoner testimonies, witness reports and first-hand interviews.

Indiana University historian Klaus Mühlhahn estimates in his new book that 10 percent of China's people were imprisoned in the 1960s, perhaps half of them serving lengthy terms in labor camps devoted to the "re-education" of those accused of counter-revolutionary activities.

"I was totally unprepared for that," said Mühlhahn, a professor in the IU Bloomington Department of History, part of the College of Arts and Sciences. "Like most other China specialists, I didn't know how extensive this practice really was."

Mühlhahn said criminal justice -- while often ignored by historians -- reveals important truths about societies, including what life is like for populations that come into contact with the justice system.

"Criminal justice is a significant aspect of history," he said. "It is one of the most powerful mechanisms by which societies and governments enforce values and modes of behavior."

In China, that includes two millennia of imperial history, when the penal system was designed to enforce social divisions and hierarchies. Prior to 1900, routine punishments included flogging, torture and servitude; and sentences, including executions, were often carried out in public.

China initiated major legal reforms in the early 1900s in an effort to build a strong state and win favor from the West. But the Chinese government turned to harsh measures under pressure from war and revolution in the 1940s. And after 1949, the Peoples Republic of China took the practice to new levels with the institution of Laogai, or reform through labor, with starving and emaciated prisoners forced to work brutally hard on futile projects.

The number of prisoners in China has remained secret, but Mühlhahn arrives at what he considers a conservative estimate: that in the 1960s there were at least 20 million inmates in the labor camps and probably an equal number in prisons, jails and other forms of detention. Millions died in the camps, he writes, largely through starvation and overwork, especially during periods of food shortages and the 1960s Cultural Revolution.

Mühlhahn credits China with reforming its justice system since the 1970s, but he said the story of past abuses is important and needs to be told.

He said interviewing survivors of the labor camps, including a 90-year-old man, was an emotional experience. Many said they didn't oppose the Communist government but were imprisoned for having suspect class backgrounds or harboring "individualist" tendencies.

"People really suffered when they were recalling this," he said. "The conditions were very hard, very tough. In the camps, they fought for survival and they witnessed many people die."