This week courts in China granted rare compensation to a Chinese mother, Tang Hui, whose campaign for justice on behalf of her daughter instead landed her in a forced labor camp.
Tang, a 39-year-old from China's Hunan province, won her appeal against police authorities who had sentenced her to 18 months of re-education.
The case comes months after China’s top leaders pledged to reform the controversial decades-old labor camp system before the end of the year. But legal analysts say Tang Hui’s verdict may have little impact on the main issues with the camps known as “laogai.”
“This was a case of administrative compensation, and on those grounds Tang's case is won,” says Tang's lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, “But the core issues why Tang kept petitioning, and was eventually put into a labor camp have yet to be solved.”
Tang's seven-year journey
Seven years ago, Tang's then barely 11 year old daughter was kidnapped and locked up in a brothel. She was forced into working as a prostitute for months before Tang and other relatives were able to free her.
When Tang reported the case to the police, authorities responded with indifference.
“There was a policewoman called Jiang, who I think was a deputy chief of the station; she took a deposition from my daughter,” Tang recounted in a recent interview in the online publication Wangyi Xinwen. “She told my daughter: 'you do not look eleven years old at all, you say you have been forced [to prostitution], but I cannot see that you have.’”
Tang says that the policewoman, like many other local officials she spoke with, urged her not to report the case. Instead, she persevered, and two years later courts in Hunan began prosecuting the case.
Last year, the local court eventually sentenced two of the men involved in the abduction to death. Four others received life in prison and one was sentenced to 15 years.
But for Tang the rulings were too lenient.
She began to camp outside government offices, asking for harsher punishment for the perpetrators and for local officials to be held responsible for their inaction.
Her activism irked local authorities, who sent her to a labor camp. However, her sentencing sparked public outrage and, under pressure, the authorities released Tang after only nine days.
Mounting pressure to abolish ‘laogai’
The system of re-education through labor, or laogai in Mandarin, was initially created after the establishment of the People's Republic of China and mainly targeted political opponents of the Communist Party.
The system does not require a trial and is administered by China’s police force, known as the Ministry of Public Security.
An estimated 19,000 people are locked up for petty crimes or any behavior deemed harmful to social order. Sentences can run up to four years.
In the past few years, cases such as Tang Hui’s have stoked public opposition to such arbitrary police power, fueling expectations for reforming or abolishing the practice.
Legal scholars have denounced the system's abuses, and even state media have reported on local officials who rely on labor camps as a way to retaliate after disputes.
“Senior leaders at the central level have talked about the need to reform the system,” says human rights lawyer Li Fangping - who last year wrote a letter urging the government to release sentencing documents and set up hearings to look into the labor camps.
“But still nothing has yet transpired as to whether the camps are going to be abolished,” he says.
Positive steps but still much resistance
Although many in China hope that Tang's case will help abolish the laogai system, so far there are few signs that China’s leaders are even considering reforms.
Lawyer Pu Zhiqiang says that since the beginning of the year, authorities have avoided punishing petitioners with labor camp sentences, but continue using other means to intimidate them.
“They are still charged with disrupting social order, they are put in jail, or their personal freedom is limited in other ways,” he says. “These constraints are illegal, because petitioning in China is a legally recognized recourse.”
Petitioners to Beijing
China handles petitions through the State Bureau for Letters and Visits, which keeps “free-flowing channels” between petitioners and relevant government agencies and is responsible for investigating tens of thousands of citizens complaints each year.
The bureau has offices at every level of government. Technically, if a complaint is not addressed locally, citizens can appeal to the provincial branches or come to the highest ranking bureau office in Beijing.
But local officials often keep petitioners from going to the capital fearing it would hurt their reputation in the eyes of their superiors, and reduce their chances for promotion.
“On one side they says that the door is open, but on the other, as soon as you get through, they arrest you,” says Pu.
A recent survey by Chinese Academy of Social Sciences professor Yu Jianrong found that only 0.2 percent of petitioners successfully resolved their problem through help provided by the system.
The bigger impact from Tang Hui’s case may be in how it affects public opinion of petitioners and the labor camp system. Ever since her daughter's ordeal was reported, Tang, who has been dubbed “petitioner mother” by Chinese media, received broad support from the Chinese public as well as in policy circles.
In a recent editorial on Caixin magazine, Fan Zhongxin, professor of law at Hanzhou University, said that Tang did not behave in a manner that was disproportionate to the harm inflicted on her child.
“She attempted to reaffirm moral standards,” Fan wrote, “and as a result society is better off for it.”