China’s re-education through labor camps have become the very thing they were originally designed to punish.
The Chinese government announced last month that it was preparing to “reform” the country’s “notorious re-education through labor camps,” which, according to the Ministry of Justice still had at least 160,000 inmates spread among 350 camps at the end of 2008. The camps, which were built by the Chinese Communist Party in the 1950s, were originally set up to punish the Party’s political enemies. But according to NPR, “Today, the camps are driven by the same motives they were initially designed to punish.” The government has not yet made it clear what this “reform” would look like, but a commentary in the state run news service Xinhua said, “The system has drawn increasingly wide and fierce criticism from the public for years, and the need for reform is more necessary at present.” However, without a clear official policy in place human rights activists are concerned the camps will merely be replaced by “illegal black jails.”
The camps themselves have basically become slave mills. The inmates work 16 or more hours a day making products like blue jeans, uniforms, wire, and circuit boards. These products are then sold domestically or exported for profit. Maya Wang, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch said, “These re-education through labor facilities have become more like profit-making enterprises, for the local government to basically have free labor that they could force to work for many hours a day to produce products at very low cost for domestic and international consumption.”
The harsh conditions and forced labor are bad enough, but for a person to be sent to one of these re-education camps all they have to do is run afoul of the local authorities. In fact, according to Wang, “all they [the police] have to do is issue a document stating that an individual has disturbed social order, and that person can be sent to a camp for up to four years.” She explains, “Local officials don’t want their dirty laundry to be aired in the open. The police control the process. They don’t have to go through the courts, and they don’t have to present any evidence.” An example of this is the story of Tang Hui, a woman from the Hunan province in south central China, who was sent to a re-education camp after publicly criticizing local authorities when they protected the owner of a brothel that had trafficked her 11-year-old daughter. However, she was released after only 10 days thanks to the “ensuing uproar on the Chinese equivalent of Twitter,” which forced the national government to get involved.
Even Wang Gongyi, a retired labor camp researcher for the Ministry of Justice believes “the days or re-education through labor are numbered.” He does assert that the whole issue of labor camps is overblown, insisting “petitioners only make up a tiny fraction of camp inmates … Now, people are only coming out, not going in, so the system only has 30,000 to 40,000 people.” He does, however agree that the biggest issue is that “decisions are made arbitrarily. The system doesn’t strictly follow legal procedure. Good people can be easily wronged.” Although “the majority government people support abolition,” according to Gongyi, there is still one large group of powerful supporters. China’s police would have to give up an “authoritarian tool that has proven so convenient for so long,” and forcing them to do that may prove more difficult than the government realizes.
Photo: Philip Jägenstedt/Flickr