Guo was lucky enough — and perhaps well connected enough — to be allowed to serve part of his time at home because of poor health. Those who have spent time in one of the nation’s 350 labor camps describe inedible food, overcrowded cells and brute violence.
The vast majority of inmates are petty criminals, but political offenders and underground members of the banned spiritual group Falun Gong are often singled out for the worst abuse, especially if they protest conditions or refuse to confess.
Liu Jie (劉傑), 60, a former business executive from Heilongjiang Province, served a two-year sentence for “disturbing social order,” punishment for releasing a public letter demanding political and legal reform. She described how roughneck inmates violently imposed the guards’ will in return for reduced sentences. One particular thrashing cost her several front teeth and left her temporarily blind in one eye.
Liu said that when she complained about dizziness from the paint she was made to use to make paper lanterns, she was hogtied to a chair for a week, a dreaded punishment known as the “tiger bench.” Deprived of food and water for several days, she repeatedly lost consciousness, she said.
“When they unshackled me from the chair, my legs had turned black with bruises,” Liu said.
In a 2009 report, the non-governmental organization Chinese Human Rights Defenders documented what it called a “hotbed of injustice,” with inmates sometimes working 20-hour days to produce chopsticks, firecrackers, cardboard boxes or handbags.
“To meet the quota, we had to work so hard our fingers became coarse and swollen, with little blisters on top of our big blisters,” one detainee told investigators.
Inmates are paid nothing or at most a few US dollars a month.
“It’s a big sweatshop built on an enormous chain of profits,” Liu said.
Rights advocates say a genuine overhaul of the laojiao system would require, among other things, allowing victims access to lawyers and the right to appeal. However, many of them fear that party leaders may instead opt for only modest modifications. Recent trial balloons include limiting sentences to a few months, providing inmates with weekend furloughs or requiring the police to issue written verdicts.
Such changes, would accomplish little He said.
“Technically speaking, laojiao is easy to fix, but the danger is that all we’ll get is a deceptive name change.”