Gulag Reform: Will China Stop Sending Its Dissidents to Labor Camps?

A recent story in a nationalist, Beijing-based newspaper suggests that China might be rethinking labor camps

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Feng Zi—Color China Photo / AP

Armed policemen guard inmates at a prison in Meishan city in southwest China's Sichuan province on Feb. 26, 2010

The phrase laojiao (劳教) doesn’t carry the same resonance as the word gulag. But this brutal Chinese system of re-education through labor isn’t so different from the Soviet archipelago of repression where democrats and dissidents alike were expected to reform themselves through physical toil. At least 60,000 (and perhaps up to several million) inmates are currently toiling in these Chinese camps, making the People’s Republic home to the most extensive such network in the world. Prisoners include veteran NGO workers, writers, petitioners aiming to publicize official wrongdoing and members of banned religious groups. Most chillingly, China, which began re-education through labor back in 1957, allows for such incarceration for up to two years without trial.

(MORE: Chinese Dissidents’ Stories of Abuse in Detention Emerge)

Given the secrecy veiling the laojiao camps, it was nothing if not surprising to see a Sept. 9 story in the Global Times, a nationalist Beijing-based newspaper, raising doubts about their place in modern China:

The re-education-through-labor system, which empowers authorities to lock people away for up to three years without judicial procedure, has returned to the fore. A major outcry for its abolishment has sprung up, and the entire system now finds itself in trouble.

While more and more “victims” of the system, all confined for varying periods of time, are standing up to sue their local re-education-through-labor committees, some legal experts have also joined the fray.

Given the Global Times’ ties with China’s ruling Communist Party, the article, “Forced Labor Forces Rethink,” was startling in several ways. First, the paper admitted that such a system existed — and reported outright that its existence says something troublesome about the state of the rule of law in China. Second, it referred to a long anti-laojiao campaign by various activists, including a lawyer from the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou whose campaign calling for the system’s abolishment has collected more than 7,000 signatures. Third, it contained information about the laojiao network that had been nearly impossible to procure, such as the number of people in the camps (the aforementioned 60,000) and the paltry amount they can be paid for their toil (8 yuan or $1.30 per month, in some cases).

(PHOTOS: China Stamps Out Democracy Protests)

The laojiao exposé wouldn’t have run without the permission of China’s state censors, which raises the possibility of reform. And indeed, the Global Times piece stated that change may be in the air, noting that “a new system has been brewing for years”:

“Actually, the government has realized the importance and urgency of the situation and is trying to work out a solution,” said Chen Zhonglin, dean of the law school at Chongqing University … Hu Xingdou, a professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology with a long interest in the reform of the system, told the Global Times that vested interest holders had blocked reform. They see the system as an effective means of maintaining social stability and as a source of considerable profit through the labor of detainees … “Maintaining social stability in a way that has no legal basis will only backfire,” said Hu, calling the system “the biggest obstacle for China’s legal construction.”

In August, Chinese anger, vented through local microblogs, swelled after Xinhua, the state news agency, published a story about a woman who had just been released from a laojiao camp. According to Xinhua, she was jailed because she dared to raise a fuss about the relatively light sentences given to the men who raped and subsequently forced her then 11-year-old daughter into prostitution. (The re-education-through-labor network is different from China’s so-called black jails, which operate on yet another plane of secrecy and often fill up just as local governments want to silence the streets of dissonant voices during major events or visits by foreign dignitaries.)

But last week, a court in the central Chinese city of Changsha rejected appeals by seven people sentenced to at least a year of hard labor in laojiao camps. Their crimes? Protesting the demolition of their homes or businesses by kneeling briefly in front of the Chinese flag in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

MORE: Human Rights Watch: Hundreds of Thousands Still Tortured in Name of Drug Treatment