Brutal vestige of China's past persists

SUN JOURNAL

Punishment: Despite reforms and criticism from rights groups, thousands of people a year are jailed at re-education-through-labor camps

March 26, 2001|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - Liu Xiaobo knew something was wrong when the plainclothes police officer who usually followed him showed up at his door one sunny fall morning five years ago wearing a uniform.

After escorting him to the local public security bureau, police sat Liu in a conference room before a man with a video camera. Three people introduced themselves as representatives from the Beijing Re-education-Through-Labor Committee.

"Today, we're going to go through a very formal procedure," one said.

They gave Liu a cup of water and asked him for his name, age and address. Then they read the two charges: "attacking, humiliating and slandering the Communist Party leaders and the socialist system" and "disrupting social order."

The evidence: an article Liu had written in 1994 mourning those killed five years earlier during the crackdown on the Tiananmen Square uprising and a second statement he had endorsed in 1995 calling for democracy and rule of law in China.

For this, the officials announced, Liu would spend the next three years in a re-education-through-labor camp.

The meeting lasted 10 minutes. There were no lawyers or judges. Liu had no realistic hope of overturning the sentence.

"It took no more than an hour and a half for them to arrest me in my home, declare a sentence of three years in a re-education camp and send me to another detention center in suburban Beijing," Liu recalled in a recent interview. "I never imagined they could use such a fast method. If I hadn't gone to the toilet, it would have been even shorter."

In the past two decades, daily life in China has become freer and more open. Many Chinese can own homes, open private businesses, choose where they work, obtain passports and make fun of Communist Party leaders in private.

Yet authorities can still arrest anyone for practically any reason at any time and send him to a camp for up to three years of hard labor without trial.

The party invented the system in its darker days to imprison perceived opponents. If China hopes to build a rule of law and earn the international respect it so desperately seeks, though, many critics say the practice must end.

"The system itself is inherently arbitrary," said Mary Robinson, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, as she called for its abolition last month during a visit to Beijing. "The concept of using forced labor as a punishment is against the accepted international human rights principles."

Re-education through labor has generated heated debate among legal scholars here.

Some suggest the government may alter the system considerably within a few years.

The authoritarian regime, though, has resisted scrapping it in part because it has proved a convenient way to dispatch petty criminals as well as critics, including political dissidents, labor activists and members of the underground Christian community.

Wang Yunsheng, who oversees the system for the Ministry of Justice, has said the government is considering changes, but he appears to have ruled out abolition.

"For such a populous nation as China, the RTL [re-education-through-labor] system, which aims at stopping those on the verge of committing serious crimes, is an effective one for reducing crime," the state-run China Daily quoted Wang as saying.

At times, the Chinese government seems unable to appreciate how awful the process appears to much of the outside world. Last month, an official described re-education-through-labor camps in warm, paternalistic terms to a news conference that included dozens of international journalists.

"On the issue of re-education-through-labor, we have a saying: The authorities will treat those people who are receiving re-education in a way like teachers treat students, like doctors treat patients, like parents treat children," said Liu Jing, head of China's Office for Prevention and Handling of Cults.

Prisoners paint a less homey picture. Most spend their days laboring in factories or tending crops by hand.

Liu Fenggang, 42, spent two years digging irrigation ditches and planting rice, potatoes, beans and watermelon in China's far northeastern province of Heilongjiang, more than 500 miles from his home. Working from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., he was required to dig 180 feet of irrigation ditches a day.

If a work team reached the goals set for it, members would share a roast goose. If a team failed, officials would add an extra day to each worker's sentence.

Liu Fenggang, who used to work at a medical instrument factory, suffers from arthritis in his legs and lower back. He said the field work was excruciating and exhausting.

"After a day's work, I didn't even have the strength to get on the truck," Liu recalled. "When I woke up, I didn't even have the strength to put on my clothes. At the time, I thought even a death penalty would be better than this re-education-through-labor camp."

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