Forced labour camps: Is it finally coming to an end?
Prominent lawyer says new leadership hints at reforming system of re-education through labour
In mainland China, sometimes it takes little more than a few words to get a trip to the country's labour camp.
In April 2011, Mr Huang Chengcheng posted this message on his Weibo microblog: "Friends, I'll make a pot of jasmine tea and wait for you at the McDonald's next to the Chongqing Liberation Monument at 2 pm this Sunday."
Amid heated discussion of the Jasmine Revolution and the Arab Spring, the friendly invitation struck a sensitive nerve. The authority "awarded" him two years of "re-education through labour", also known as forced labour camp.
Three months later, another Chongqing blogger Mr Ren Jianyu fared just as badly. The authorities sent him to the camp because he had copied, forwarded and commented on "more than 100 negative postings". An evidence the police submitted to court was a t-shirt that reads "give me liberty or give me death".
Many faced a similar fate when Mr Bo Xilai was Chongqing's Party chief and his trusted ally Mr Wang Lijun the police chief. Some defendants were sent to the camp even though they plead not guilty.
Now that the powerful Politburo member and police chief are ousted, some of the victims of political prosecution are trying to appeal to reverse their convictions.
Civil rights lawyer Mr Pu Zhiqiang, who represents many dissidents, including artist Mr Ai Weiwei, is trying to put pressure on the authorities to dismantle the corrupt system altogether.
Introduced in the 1950s, re-education through labour is a system used to detain people who committed minor crimes and force them work in labour camps. The system was the authority's handy tool to punish the opposition without lawyers or judges getting in the way.
Mr Pu said criticisms of the system had been rising in the last few years, and he believed the system would be abolished within six months.
Part of the reason was the new leadership needed to win over the people immediately, he said.
A report released recently by Communist Party mouthpiece Xinhua said the Central Legal Reform Committee acknowledged several procedural defects in the system and it should be reformed.
In June 2012, he helped Mr Fang Hong, who got one year of labour re-education in mid-2011 for satirising Mr Bo and Mr Wang, reverse his conviction of disturbing social order, although Mr Fang had already served his sentence.
Mr Pu said the cases were then allowed to be heard and that the political inertia of vice-premier Mr Zhang Dejiang, a contender for a seat on the Politburo Standing Committee, might help. Mr Zhang was appointed as acting chief of Chongqing after Mr Bo's downfall and his performance there would determine whether he could secure the seat.
"Vice-premier Zhang doesn't want to do anything; he wants no trouble," Mr Pu said. "Chongqing is the safest place in the country now, because nobody in public security, the procuratorate, or the courts wants any trouble."
According to Mr Xie Su-ming, the police has business deals with a variety of companies and uses the detainees as cheap labour. They are required to work about 13 hours a day, manufacturing products like straws and automobile parts. They would receive physical punishment if they cannot finish the assignments of the day.
Mr Xie was sentenced to one year of labour re-education in December 2009 for his criticism of Mr Wang Hongju, former mayor of Chongqing. Since his release a year ago, he has suffered from psychological problems and only recently dared to return to the municipal.
"It was not a big deal how much I suffered physically. Losing freedom was the most painful thing," Mr Xie said. "A day in the camp felt like a year."
According to Mr Pu, since nobody audits the accounts, the money made from the businesses flows right into police officers' pockets. Though abolishing the system will damage some officials' interests, Mr Pu thinks it is still easy for the central government to do so, and he expects the next premier, Mr Li Keqiang, to give the order.
"Li doesn't care whether local officials are making money or not. He just considers whether abolishing the system would give him credit," said Mr Pu.
Reported by Lavinia Mo
Edited by Fechon Wong
The Young Reporter Vol. 45