China’s new leaders have vowed to reform the country’s notorious, decades-old labor camp system before the end of the year. But there are still few details about what changes are planned. Any reform efforts face significant challenges.
They are called laojiao in Mandarin: China’s extensive gulag system, where police can order people held for up to four years at a time without trial in a court of law. China’s government labels this form of punishment "re-education through labor".
Liu Jie, who spent a year and a half in a labor camp, says they are a form of torture.
“People in the labor camp are forced to be drudges. We work for 14 to 16 hours a day, and if you can’t finish the work your prison term will be longer,” she said.
The Communist Party created the laojiao system in the 1950s to punish counterrevolutionaries. Today the camps house an estimated 200,000 prostitutes, drug addicts, religious and political dissidents as well as people like Liu, who signed a public petition demanding political and legal reforms.
She was forced to manufacture holiday decorations and toothpicks. After complaining about her treatment, Liu says camp guards bound her to a chair.
“In the evening they brought me to the small room in the basement by stealth and subjected me to cruel torture," she said. "They tied me up on a torture rack and tortured me for seven days and nights. They put me on a bed which was for dead people, and fastened my hands. Then I fell asleep.”
Pressure to reform the labor camp system has been building, with more victims like Liu speaking out about their experiences. In Yunnan Province labor camps now only house drug addicts.
But the Chinese government spends more than $100 billion each year on internal security and the labor camps have played a key role in silencing critics. Human rights lawyers like Li Fanping say it’s unlikely they will be shut down any time soon.
“I think it is very difficult for the ruling party and the government to abolish the re-education through labor system because they don’t want to give up such a frightening and effective method of social control. Therefore, I think it is very likely that the system will be amended, but not abolished, in the coming few years,” Li said.
Adding to difficulty of reform is the fact that some camps have become highly profitable. Local officials earn money from the goods produced by camp labor and reportedly demand bribes from inmates hoping for release.
Despite the challenges, Liu Jie and her family remain optimistic that Beijing will make changes that end their fear of being abruptly returned to the notorious camps.