China bids halfhearted farewell to re-education camps

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Originally published by Business Recorder on December 29, 2013

Tang Hui sobbed. She had fought for years for harsher punishment for those responsible for raping her daughter and forcing the 11-year-old into prostitution, but the authorities did not put the perpetrators behind bars longer. Instead, they locked her up in one of China’s re-education camps. They did not stop her, though. She continued to fight, this time against the camps and the police who put her there.

On Saturday, after the announcement on state television that China was abolishing the “re-education through labour” camps, tears of joy ran down Tang’s face. Her case sparked outrage across China and helped lead to Saturday’s announcement of the end of a policy hated at home and denounced abroad.

Chinese authorities could send people to the camps for up to four years without a trial or judicial review. There was virtually no way to appeal the sentences. Critics said it was a way for officials to silence and remove those they deemed troublemakers. The inmates included dissidents, petitioners disputing government decisions such as land seizures, members of outlawed religious groups, petty criminals and drug users.

Among the petitioners locked up was Tang, who was sent to a camp in the central province of Hunan for 18 months, accused of disturbing public order. Public outrage followed, prompting not only a Hunan court to release her after a week in the camp but also discussions about changing the system. Some opponents of the camps came from within the government. “It is not good for human rights protection to deprive a citizen of his personal freedom without a court proceeding,” Wang Gongyi, former director of a Justice Ministry research institute, said in May.

At the beginning of this year, China had 260 re-education camps with 160,000 inmates, according to the ministry. The abolition of a system that was created in the 1950s and modelled after the Soviet Gulag was announced in special broadcasts on state television. According to official media reports, most of the camps are to be emptied or re-engineered.

But human rights groups warned judicial abuses were far from over. US-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders said authorities had already established a system of “black jails” into which dissidents and petitioners disappear. “This important step will only be meaningful if the government ensures what comes after it does not institute another system of detention without trial,” said Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch.

Corinna-Barbara Francis of Amnesty International called the measure a step in the right direction although she said she feared it was merely a “cosmetic change” as some camps are renamed as drug rehabilitation centres but continue to operate as before. “The abuses and torture are continuing, just in a different way,” she said.

A few operators of the camps admit that they were continuing their work after the decision by the standing committee of the National People’s Congress, China’s top legislative committee. “We now provide physical and mental assistance to people with the willingness to quit drugs,” one worker at a camp in Beijing recently renamed the Tiantanghe Rehab Center told state media.

Its employees have received a crash course on how to treat drug addicts, the reports said. The legislative committee’s simultaneous decision to relax China’s one-child policy was similarly welcomed and criticised. Couples in which one partner is an only child will now be allowed to have two children.

Human rights groups, however, have campaigned for the limits to be done away with altogether. “The revised policy will still wrongly limit reproductive rights and lead to abuses,” Adams said. Most population experts said the policy change would not lead to a baby boom in the country, which, with its 1.3 billion people, is the world’s most populous.

“People’s thinking has changed a lot with China’s economic and social development,” Liang Zhongtang of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences said. “Many today want only one child.” He estimated that the change would allow about 10 million couples to have an additional baby, but he said many couples worry that they do not have enough money for a second child.

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