BEIJING–They’re stripped of their dignity, forced to toil at monotonous work and suffer the embarrassment of wearing clothes stained with their excrement.
And many of them still don’t know why they were forced to endure such punishment.
They are former inmates of China’s re-education-through-labor system, a practice that has been harshly criticized as a gross violation of human rights. Authorities, however, consider it an important measure to maintain public order.
Under the system, citizens accused of disturbing public order can be detained based solely on the judgment of labor management committees, which are actually operated by the police.
Periods of incarceration are for up to three years. However, one-year extensions are also possible.
Many citizens critical of the government are taken into custody and sentenced to forced labor under this system.
Ye Jinghuan, 57, a career woman working for a Beijing-based foreign company, experienced the harsh conditions of her “re-education.”
She and others had often gathered in front of the China Central Television station in central Beijing to protest the government over bankruptcy proceedings for a company that they had invested in.
On each occasion, the police were informed of the time the demonstration.
In March 2007, police accompanied Ye from her home to the protest site, where she was joined by 15 associates.
After about 15 minutes had passed, Ye was unexpectedly taken into custody by the police as the suspected leader of the protest and sent to a detention house.
There was no trial and she wasn’t immediately informed why she was being detained. In April, she was charged with “disrupting social order” and sentenced to 21 months at a re-education-through-labor camp.
“The police told me I would be released if I admitted to the crime they had investigated. However, it wasn’t made clear what crime I had committed, so I refused. I was probably sent to the labor camp because they were unable to prosecute me with any crime,” she said.
She was transferred to a facility on the outskirts of the city along with six other women. They were ordered to squat down by the man in charge who was called “captain” and were given short haircuts.
Ye was assigned to a room with six bunk beds and metal bars over the window. The youngest of her cellmates was 16 and serving time for prostitution. The oldest, 70, was in for practicing Falun Gong, which was banned.
The room was monitored with surveillance cameras, and the inmates were not permitted to go within a meter of the door or window.
The next morning, a strand of hair stuck to Ye’s neck when she washed her face. When she tried to wipe it away with water, a guard screamed at her, “When did you get permission to wash your neck!”
She asked for permission but was denied. “I haven’t done anything wrong. Why do I have to suffer through all this unpleasantness? This is nothing but forced obedience, an attempt to completely crush my dignity as a person,” she said she thought at the time.
Like the other inmates, she was only allowed to use the restroom four times a day: 6 a.m., 10 a.m., 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. Inmates were not allowed to have bowel movements during the 6 a.m. slot.
On occasion, Ye had to defecate in her pants.
Inmates rose at 6 a.m. and the lights were turned off at 10 p.m.
Except for 15-minute meal breaks, almost all of their time awake was spent doing manual labor.
Each inmate had a quota of putting 10,000 sets of disposable chopsticks into bags. As the delivery date drew nearer, they were forced to work until midnight.
They were denied sleep until the quotas were met. And they weren’t compensated for their labor.
Inmates who violated the rules were forced to sit in front of a white wall and were forbidden from speaking or moving from morning until lights out.
Meals were eaten in that position, and two other inmates were assigned to sit on either side of the prisoner being punished to ensure she didn’t speak or move.
When she was released in December 2008, Ye weighed 43 kilograms, down from 59 kg at the time she entered the facility.
She said her decision to become a “witness to history” helped her from losing her spirit.
She has written about 300 pages about her 21-month incarceration, but can’t find a Chinese company willing to publish it.
A 47-year-old woman living in northeastern China was confined to a labor facility for one year starting in 2004 for “interfering with the normal duties of a government agency.”
The woman had anonymously complained about the corrupt practices of the agency she worked for.
At the detention facility, she shared a room with about 30 other people.
They were not allowed any personal belongings and had to buy everything from traders. If a fight broke out between inmates, traders would be banned from the facility, denying the prisoners a chance to buy daily necessities.
During her menstrual period, the woman was forbidden from buying even sanitary napkins. She said she had to wear soiled clothing.
“It’s worse than actual prison, a type of hell where we were not even afforded the most basic of human rights. I never want to experience that again,” she said.
According to Chinese government documents, 350 forced labor facilities across the country housed a total of 160,000 inmates at the end of 2008.
Jiang Tianyong, a former attorney who is bringing attention to problems associated with re-education system, said the number of cases of people being sent off to labor facilities for participating in protests and demonstrations is increasing. Others are being hauled away for appealing directly to the national government through a practice known as “visiting the top,” in which people seek an audience with higher-ups in the government.
Local officials and police officers find it “inconvenient” if residents from their jurisdictions visit Beijing to lodge complaints.
“For the police, there is no easier tool to use than the charge of ‘disturbing public order.’ Anyone complaining about the government can be detained for extremely ambiguous reasons without being afforded the right to a trial. This practice should be abolished as soon as possible,” Jiang says.
Liu Renwen, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government-related think tank, says: “Everyone agrees on the need for revision. However, the Chinese penal code does not have any regulation for ‘preventive detention’ (detaining someone who it is feared may commit a crime).
“It is necessary to have some kind of method that meets the demands of a society governed by law.”
Drug users who could commit crimes are cited as applicable targets for preventive detention.
In the National People’s Congress, the equivalent of Japan’s Diet, legislation aimed at reforming the re-education-through-labor system is being deliberated. However, the legislation only goes as far as reforming operational aspects of the system; it doesn’t seek to abolish it.
In explaining the background behind the legislation, a person concerned with the law noted that in 1999, Falun Gong members staged a large-scale sit-in at the Zhongnanhai, a complex of buildings in Beijing that serve as the headquarters of the Chinese Communist Party and Chinese government.
“This incident stopped any government movement to abolish the system in its tracks,” the source said.
International human rights groups and others have harshly criticized the system. But, as one Chinese official asserts, “As yet, the existence of the re-education-through-labor system is still very important.”