Closing the camps, or just changing the names…

China abolishes its labour camps and releases prisoners

China’s leaders address Chairman Mao’s ‘re-education through labour’ by   closing labour camps across country and releasing tens of thousands of   prisoners

The front gate of Beijing Tiantanghe compulsory rehabilitation centre for Drug Addicts

The front gate of Beijing Tiantanghe compulsory rehabilitation centre for Drug Addicts Photo: DAILY TELEGRAPH
Malcolm Moore

By , Beijing

China   appears to have fulfilled a promise to dismantle hundreds of labour camps   and release tens of thousands of people who were imprisoned in them without   trial.

A series of visits to six enormous labour camps on the outskirts of Beijing   suggested that four had been shut down, with their signs removed. Staff said   all their prisoners had been released and they were waiting for further   orders.

The other two camps had been converted; one into a drug rehabilitation centre   and the other into the second cell block of a local prison.

Interviews with former labour camp prisoners across China also confirmed that   the system has been disbanded and that they had not been placed in any other   type of detention.

The Communist   party has promised since 2007 to end “re-education through labour”,   a relic of Chairman Mao’s era which allowed the police to imprison offenders    – including political and religious dissidents – for up to four years   without trial, often forcing them to slave in mines and factories, or on   farms.

The labour camp system was criticised as an “urgent human rights concern”   by the United Nations in 2009.

However, for years there appeared scant progress and the future of the camps   was kept a tight secret.

Human rights campaigners expressed concern that the camps might survive under   a different name, or that prisoners would be moved to other facilities such   as mental hospitals or secret jails.

At the start of 2013, there were roughly 160,000 people in labour camps,   according to Human Rights Watch.

An official at Beijing’s Labour Camp Bureau, who only named himself as Mr Zhang, insisted that a new government vote at the end of December had proven decisive, and that all prisoners had now been released and allowed to return home.

“I can be very sure there is no one left inside,” he said. However,   he declined to allow access to any of the camps and would not say how many   there were in Beijing or in total.

Asked how many people were released, he said: “Sorry I can’t tell you,   there are some relevant regulations to follow.”

Several dissidents who served time in labour camps confirmed that they had   been abruptly released over the past year, had been allowed to return home,   and have not been the focus of any other police restrictions.

Jiang Chengfen, a 40-year-old farmer from Sichuan who served a year in a   labour camp for criticising the government, said she had been released   abruptly without finishing her sentence.

Jiang Chengfen (DAILY TELEGRAPH)

“They did not tell me I was being released, just to go downstairs because   someone had come to see me. It was my husband. They had brought him but also   not told him I was being released. I had to change my clothes and they   pushed me out,” she said. “I was quite puzzled”.

All of Beijing’s recorded labour camps were in Daxing, a dusty grey suburb   roughly 50 minutes by car from the city centre.

Satellite photographs show the scale of the complexes, some of which had as   many as 30 different blocks within their high concrete walls. Many of the   labour camps were placed in “prison districts”, next to   high-security jails.

Officials at the camps in Daxing declined to allow any access to their   respective facilities, but claimed they were now vacant.

“We are still working, but there is not much to do,” said one   official at the Xinhe labour camp, who declined to give his name because he   did not have permission to speak to the media. “We cannot let you   inside though, it is still top secret,” he added.

At the Daxing Women’s Labour Camp, a policeman said staff were awaiting   orders. “The government is still deciding what to do with the facility   now,” he added. A deliveryman outside the gates said he had made   regular drop-offs at the site but that it was now empty.


Guo Qinghua, 46, used to clean the lavatories at the offices of the Standing   Committee of the Beijing People’s Congress before an argument over her pay   landed her in the Daxing Women’s Labour Camp.

Behind the high concrete walls, she said, were three pink dormitory buildings,   two for normal prisoners and one for members of the Falun Gong movement,   drug addicts and violent inmates.

“At its peak, there were around 700 detainees,” she said. “There   was a cattle farm in the camp, a library and a greenhouse. There was also a   music room with traditional Chinese instruments, a yoga room and a room like   a gym, although those were only for show because they were always closed.”

Ms Guo said she had been released last May and not placed under any other type   of restriction.

Ma Liangfu, a 54-year-old man in Inner Mongolia, was sent to a labour camp for   trying to prosecute the sons of some local politicians who blinded him in   one eye when he intervened to stop them raping a girl.

He said he was the last remaining prisoner in the Tumuji camp before it was   shut down at the end of December. “The inmates were all thieves, pimps   or people who had got into fights,” he said. “The police beat up   inmates all the time. But by October 1 last year, everyone was released,   apart from me and the drug addicts.

“At 3am on December 22, the police drove me to the train station and one   of them went on the train with me all the way home. All the labour camps in   Inner Mongolia are now empty. The labour camp has now been turned into a   drug rehabilitation centre”.

In Daxing, the huge Tiantanghe labour camp has also been turned into a drug   rehabilitation centre, an official at the site confirmed.

Meanwhile, the Tuanhe labour camp has become a second cell block for Daxing   prison. “We are in the process of transition,” said a policeman,   as workers built a new bridge to the site.

Some campaigners worry that “drug rehabilitation centres” would be a   prison by a different name for large population of drug addicts inside the   old labour camps.

Some prostitutes, meanwhile, are now being sent to “custody and education”,   another detention system that is administered by the police outside of the   courts.

The biggest replacement for the labour camp system appears to be   court-mandated “community correction”, which does not involve   detention but obliges offenders to report regularly to a drop-in centre and   for their communications to be monitored.

“From a legislative point of view, the labour camp system has been   abolished,” said Li Fangping, a leading human rights lawyer. “But   we need to worry about whether black prisons and mental wards will be used   to detain protesters.”

“As for what happens to the facilities, it is difficult to tell. We need   to pay attention though. In Jixi, Heilongjiang, the camp is now a ‘legal   education base’ which is used for Falun Gong disciples and underground   Christians.”

Additional reporting by Adam Wu


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