It is hard to say exactly which “subversive” sentiments drew Chinese police to Ren Jian-yu (任建宇) — who posted them on his microblog last year — although “down with dictatorship” and “long live democracy” stand out.
In the end, Ren, 25, a college graduate from Chongqing, the southwestern Chinese metropolis, was sent without trial to a work camp based on the T-shirt that investigators found in his closet that read “Freedom or death.”
Last year, Ren was among tens of thousands of Chinese who were dumped into the nation’s vast “re-education through labor” system, a Stalinist-inspired constellation of penal colonies where pickpockets, petitioners, underground Christian church members and other perceived social irritants toil in dismal conditions for up to four years, all without trial. With as many as 190,000 inmates at any one time, it is one of the world’s largest systems of forced labor.
However, now the labor system, known by its shorthand, laojiao (勞教), is facing a groundswell of opposition from both inside and outside the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Critics say last month’s once-in-a-decade leadership transition, which included the demotion of the chief of the nation’s vast internal security apparatus, has created a potential opening for judicial and legal reform.
“It’s high time we demolish this unconstitutional and abusive system that violates basic human rights, fuels instability and smears the government’s image,” said Hu Xingdou (胡星斗), a professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology who frequently rails against the system that former Chinese leader Mao Zedong (毛澤東) created in the 1950s to deal with suspected class enemies and counter-revolutionaries.
The calls for change go beyond long-standing advocates of political reform like Hu. China’s national bar association is circulating an online petition that has been signed by thousands. Legal experts have convened seminars to denounce the system and almost every day, it seems, the state-run news media, with the top leadership’s tacit support, report on hapless citizens ensnared by the arbitrary justice that local police impose with the wave of a hand.
Ren’s case would probably have gone unnoticed if not for China’s increasingly emboldened human-rights defenders, who showcased his plight on the Internet. Evidently prodded by the torrent of media coverage, Chongqing officials cut short his two-year sentence and freed him.
“It was a depressing, dreadful experience,” Ren said in a telephone interview this month, describing long days spent in the camp’s wire-coiling workshop.
Other examples abound. A migrant worker from the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region was sent away for quarreling with an official at a restaurant. A mother from Hunan Province was given an 18-month sentence after she protested publicly that the men who had raped and forced her 11-year-old daughter into prostitution had been treated too leniently.
This month, an 80-year-old Korean War veteran with Parkinson’s disease sobbed on national television as he described spending 18 months in a labor camp as punishment for filing local corruption complaints.
The People’s Daily, the CCP’s mouthpiece, took aim at the system last month, saying it had become “a tool of retaliation” for local officials. In October, the head of a government judicial reform committee said there was a broad consensus in favor of addressing the system’s worst abuses.