BEIJING — Following days of confusion after the Chinese government announced plans to reform its policy of “re-education through labor,” the state-owned newspaper China Daily stated on Monday that the labor camps are expected to be “abolished” this year.
It is about time China stamped out this barbaric system, first started in 1957 under Mao Zedong. But it’s too soon to rejoice: the Chinese Communist Party will no doubt find other ways to lock up the dissidents and troublemakers who challenge it. It already has.
Under the current labor camp system — known as laojiao in Mandarin — the Chinese police can intern people without trial for up to four years. At the end of 2008, 160,000 Chinese people were held in 350 such camps. In October, the Ministry of Justice put the figure at 60,000. The prisoners typically include petitioners but also prostitutes, drug users and people who simply find themselves standing in the way of the authorities. Torture and other abuse occur routinely.
Driving the change in policy seems to be growing public outrage on the Internet, especially on microblogs. Indignation went viral over a few cases last year involving people sentenced for minor offenses.
One was Tang Hui, whose 11-year-old daughter was kidnapped, raped and forced into prostitution. After Tang appeared in front of government buildings this summer demanding the death penalty for the men who had hurt her child, she received, without being tried, 18 months of re-education through labor for having “disturbed social order.”
Some 700,000 posts about Tang’s case were soon recorded on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter. Tang was released within about a week of being sentenced. Also in August 10 lawyers released an open letter to the Ministry of Justice denouncing abuses of power and calling for reforms to laojiao.
The government felt compelled to act. In early January domestic media quoted Meng Jianzhu, head of the Political and Legal Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, as saying that re-education through labor would come to a “stop.” But uncertainty quickly set in as original reports were removed and replaced with vaguer promises to “reform” the system.
In the best-case scenario, laojiao would be abolished outright. More likely, the old system will be superseded by different practices that have a similar effect. Liu Yuhai, a reporter for the Chinese business magazine 21st Century Business Herald, stated on Weibo that he suspects the new policy will mean a “change in form but not content.”
There is indeed every reason to believe that the Party will find other ways to lock up those it considers undesirable. An increasing number of political activists have for decades been committed to mental hospitals at the behest of the police. Petitioners are carted off to so-called black jails, unlawful detention centers that the government denies exist.
Inmates in mental hospitals endure forced medication, electrocution and abuse. China’s first mental health law, which was passed in October, is designed to prevent involuntary commitment mostly by family members, but according to human rights groups it does not address commitment ordered by the authorities. Chinese ankang (“peace and health”) hospitals, run by the Ministry of Public Security (a.k.a. the police), house dissidents who are forcibly committed under the pretense that they might be a danger to others.
That the Chinese Communist Party has announced the abolishment of re-education through labor suggests it is at pains to appear responsive to the Chinese people. But its ultimate objective probably is to maintain other forms of repression while nodding to public opinion. With or without labor camps, expect China to continue silencing the outspoken.
Photograph: Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore