For two years, from 2001 to 2003, Huang Bo spent long, arduous hours in forced manual labor in China. His nimble fingers, steady and precise from years of work as a surgeon in Shanghai, weaved strings of Christmas lights, stuffed toy animals, wrapped Christmas gifts and performed any other menial task demanded as part of his "re-education" in a Chinese labor camp. His crime: being a follower of the Falun Gong meditation movement banned as a cult in the late 1990's.
The conditions were uncomfortable, at best. "The first two or three months I was forced to do those kinds of things everyday because they want you to know the rules," said Huang. "But actually it was just an excuse. They just wanted to torture me to make me give up Falungong. If you give up [your beliefs] sometimes you can have rice and enough sleep. But if you don't give up, you can do these kinds of things every day for months."
Punishment, Huang said, was often severe. "There was a guy who tried to write down [pass along] information in a packing box. He was caught and had been given electrical shock until he could not urine or stool. The police let all the people know about this. They think it is a lesson that would stop anyone trying to do the same thing," he said.
He was not alone. Chinese authorities have used the re-education centers to detain prostitutes, drug addicts and other petty criminals, sometimes for as long as four years, without putting them on trial in the country's overloaded court system. Opponents of the system say Beijing also has used them to silence government critics and dissidents.
System goes back to 1950s
China this week said it was committed to reforming the re-education through labor system that was established in the 1950s, a time, according to the official Xinhua news agency, when the Communist Party of China was consolidating the newly founded republic and rectifying social order.
Xinhua says the system was modified to include more regulations from the end of the 1970s to the early 1980s, but many experts believe it contradicts higher-level laws, including the Constitution. To accommodate social and economic changes that have taken place in China, the constitution was amended to emphasize the protection of human rights and citizens' private property, says Xinhua.
China's official media say more than 300,000 detainees were kept in hundreds of re-education centers.
In a brief report Monday, television network CCTV's microblog quoted Meng Jianzhu, head of the Communist Party Politics and Law Committee, as saying China will stop using the "re-education through labor" system this year, after the nation's parliament approves the decision. But details, such as what would become of existing camps and their current inmates, remain unclear.
"China has been talking about reforming the system for many years. So talk of reform is not new," said Maya Wang, a Hong Kong-based analyst for the international rights group, Human Rights Watch. "What we are afraid of is that the Chinese government is replacing the "re-education through labor" system with another administrative detention system."
"There has been discussion of pilot reform projects that were carried out starting last year. They're being named illegal behavior correction projects. We don't know anything about them," said Roseann Rife, East Asia Director for Amnesty International
in Hong Kong. She said it is not clear if such a revised system will provide a fair hearing or a chance for people to defend themselves.
If Beijing implements its plans, analysts say it would be a key step in reforming China's judicial system and its human rights image. Some say ending labor camp sentences could be an indication of new Chinese leader Xi Jinping's desire to carry out moderate political and legal reforms that had largely stalled under predecessor Hu Jintao. Since his rise to the leadership of the Communist party in November, Xi has called for further crackdowns on corruption and government extravagance and strengthening of the legal system.
"It very well could be," said Rife. "The danger is that it is simply an attempt to appear to be addressing these issues, appear to be implementing rule of law and human rights protections. But it all comes down to implementation and are things really going to change for people on the ground?"
Amnesty International says China's labor camps subject people to "endemic" torture and ill-treatment and should be abolished. It says detainees who suffered abuse also should be provided with a "genuine chance for redress."
In a report Monday, the official Xinhua news agency acknowledged growing public criticism of the labor camps. It cited two recent cases in which authorities apparently abused the system to lock up a village official who criticized the government and a woman who demanded tougher penalties for the men convicted of raping her 11-year-old daughter.
Although such acknowledgements are welcome, the suffering from years in labor camp detention still lingers for Huang Bo. "Even though I already left the labor camp for a long time, that electrical shock sound still makes me feel fear. I am lucky. I finally ran out of China and came to America," he said.
Victor Beattie and Ken Schwartz contributed to this report. Additional reporting by Michael Lipin in Washington.