News / Asia

Activists Skeptical of China's Announced Labor Camp Reforms

Falun Gong practitioners watch a video about a solar eclipse, part of deprogramming efforts enforced at the Masanjia Reeducation-through-labor camp in northeast China's Liaoning province. (file photo)
Falun Gong practitioners watch a video about a solar eclipse, part of deprogramming efforts enforced at the Masanjia Reeducation-through-labor camp in northeast China's Liaoning province. (file photo)
Purnell Murdock
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.

Skepticism

"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?"

'Endemic' torture

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.

You May Like

Obama: Alaskans Feel Signs of Climate Change

They're seeing bigger storm surges as sea ice melts, more wildfires, erosion of glaciers, shorelines More

Katrina Brought Enduring Changes to New Orleans

The city’s recovery is the result of the people and culture the city is famous for, as well as newcomers and start-up industries More

Magical Photo Slides Show Native Americans in Late 1800s

Walter McClintock spent 20 years photographing the Blackfoot Indians and their vanishing culture at the dawn of the modern age More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalatesi
X
August 27, 2015 2:08 AM
Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Is China's Economic Data Accurate?

Some investors say China's wild stock market gyrations have been made worse by worries about the reliability of that nation's economic data. And some critics say the reports can mislead investors by painting an unrealistically-strong picture of the economy. A key China scholar says Beijing is not fudging ((manipulating)) the numbers, but that the economy is evolving quickly from smoke-stack industries to services, and the ways of tracking new economic activity are falling behind the change. V
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Shipping Containers Provide Experimental Housing

Housing prices around the San Francisco Bay area are out of reach for many people, so some young entrepreneurs, artists and tech industry workers are creating their own houses using converted shipping containers. But as VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Oakland, the effort requires ingenuity and dealing with restrictive local laws.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video Technique May Eliminate Drill-and-Fill Dental Care

Many people dread visiting dentists because they're afraid of drills. Now, however, a technology developed by a British firm promises to eliminate the need for mechanical cleaning of dental cavities by speeding a natural process of tooth repair. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.
Video

Video French Experiment in Integrating Roma Under Threat

Plans to destroy France’s oldest slum have sparked an outcry on the part of its Roma residents. As Lisa Bryant reports from the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, rights groups argue the community is a fledgling experiment on integrating Roma who are often outcasts in many parts of Europe.
Video

Video Kenyans Turn to Agriculture for Business

Each year Kenyan universities continue to churn out graduates for the job market despite the already existing high rate of unemployment among youth in the country. Some of these young men and women have realized that agriculture can be as rewarding as any other business or job, and they are resorting to agribusiness in large numbers as a way of tackling unemployment. Rael Ombuor reports for VOA.
Video

Video First Women Graduate Elite Army Ranger School

Two women are making history for the U.S. Army by proving they are among the toughest of the tough. VOA's Carla Babb reports from Fort Benning, Georgia as 94 men and those two women rise as graduates of the difficult Ranger school.

VOA Blogs