China: Reformed Labour Camps?

24 Mar, 2013    ·   3850

Namrata Hasija on the future of existing labour camps in China in the context of their current modus operandi 

Namrata Hasija
Namrata Hasija
Senior Research Officer

On 17 March, 2013, in his first press release after being appointed as the new Chinese Premier, Li Keqiang said that a plan will be released later this year for introducing reforms in the controversial gulags (labour camps) in China. This article will look into what gulags are and how they operate in China. Why is the Chinese government thinking of reforming this system now?

What are Gulags?
Gulags are not unique to China. In fact, the term is derived from the Russian "Glavnoye Upravleniye Ispravitel'no-Trudovykh Lagerey i koloniy", or ‘Chief Administration of Corrective Labour Camps, an institution in the former Soviet Union. The camps were used as a tool to repress political dissidents and punish other ‘enemies of the state.’

In China, the system was introduced in the 1950s and was called ‘laojiao’, which literally means re-education through labour. Though borrowed from the Soviet Union, gulags in China were different in the sense that they were started for reforming anti-social elements as well as for political dissidents. The Chinese system was huge under Mao and 40-50 million people have been jailed since 1949. Jiang Zemin expanded the camps especially for imprisoning members from the Falun Gong. Currently 3-5 million Chinese are in these camps. The labour camps are built like jails and are huge with workshops, vegetable gardens and parade grounds. 

Initially started to reform ‘anti-social’ elements like drug addicts and prostitutes, these camps have actually served Chinese authorities as far as the imprisonment of dissidents is concerned. According to this system, the police can arrest and imprison someone without ever bringing them to court or even informing their family members. The inmates of these camps today, then, are mainly NGO workers, writers, petitioners who have publicised the government’s wrongdoings, members from banned religious organisations and so on. The minimum imprisonment is up to four years but many have been imprisoned for decades.

Introducing Reforms: Why Now?
People in the outside world were unaware of the existence of these labour camps for many decades. It was only after China opened up post-liberalisation that global awareness about these camps spread. Subsequently, many firsthand reports have been published by erstwhile inmates of these labour camps. Many countries, especially the US and Canada, have expressed their displeasure as they have a policy of no import from countries where goods are produced under torture or forced labour. Chinese leaders realise that the existence of such labour camps damage China’s global soft power.

The real push for reforms came about last year when a woman was sent to a labour camp for 18 months for protesting against leniency shown to the rapists of her daughter, who forced her into prostitution after raping her. The case fuelled a debate in China as to the relevance of such camps in China. She was released immediately after public outrage and almost 98 per cent people voted on the Internet for abolishing the camps in China. Many lawyers filed petitions for abolishing these camps as they were against the Chinese constitution. China's Criminal Procedure Law provides for detainees to have access to lawyers no later than one week before trial. Even this is not granted to detainees sent to labour camps. Soon interviews of many inmates were published highlighting the inhuman conditions of these camps. The Chinese leaders made statements before and after the 18th Party Congress that they were thinking of bringing in changes to the current system.

Labour Camp Reforms: The Future 
On 7 January 2013 Meng Jiannzhu, the head of political and legal committee of the Chinese Communist Party made an announcement that the government will abolish labour camps by the end of 2013. This brought in a lot of hope and cheer across China with the state media publishing articles on this issue. However, soon these articles were removed from the Internet and official statements started coming in that the Party was looking at reforming the system especially before and during the 12th National People’s Congress. Finally on 17 March, the new Chinese Premier’s press statement put all speculation to rest with the announcement that the system will be reformed rather than abolished.

“However, deep the water may be, we will wade into it because we have no other alternative.” The change in stance highlights the power struggle within the party and police officials. It has been argued hitherto that the struggle is majorly between Xi Jinping and old guard hardliners who want the system to stay and be used as a political weapon against dissidents.

What kind of reforms will be introduced is yet to be decided. However, one can predict the line of reforms especially after Yunnan recently announced its set of reforms. It has announced that it will stop sending people to camps on a number of charges, such as “threatening national security,” “causing unrest through petitioning,” and “smearing the image of officials.” However, people already sentenced for such charges will remain in the labour camps there. A clear signal from this announcement is that   instead of a national policy, provinces will be given freedom to decide the reforms. This will in return give a lot of variations and ambiguity in the reforms leading to it being used by party and police officials for their own benefit.