When detainees are released from Chinese labour camps they often face a stark choice – keep a low profile or risk being sent straight back.
Former detainees are often prevented from speaking to the media, travelling to the Chinese capital or using social media to publicise their experience.
But in the case of Ren Jianyu, a 25 year-old former government official, things have been very different.
Ren was sentenced without trial to two years of re-education through labour for ‘subversion’ last summer. That was after he composed and forwarded messages online that were critical of the now disgraced Chongqing politician Bo Xilai.
Last week, Ren was finally released. On Sunday night, much to the surprise of many Chinese television viewers, the leading state news channel CCTV aired a half hour interview with him. In it Ren described how he was arrested, tried and even found not guilty – but was still sent to a labour camp by the local government on charges of subversion.
“It is absurd. How is it they can think a few words of mine are able to subvert the regime,” Ren said. “Millions of netizens posted stuff like this every day. If this is crime then we could all be put in a camp. Everybody should be scared.”
Ren’s experience is the latest in string of cases that have highlighted the arbitrary use of labour camps to silence outspoken criticism of local governments – an issue that even the state media is starting to pick up on.
Earlier this month a petitioner from the province of Gansu was sentenced to a year in a camp for ignoring directives warning her not to travel to Beijing to see her son. And earlier this year an 80 year-old man was ordered to complete his one and half year sentence even after suffering a heart attack 10 days after beginning his term.
In another case in August, Tang Hui, a street vendor from Hunan, was given 18 months laojiao – the term for re-education through labour – for publicly campaigning for harsher sentences for the men who had abducted and raped her 11 year-old daughter.
As in Ren’s case, Tang and the 80 year-old man were released early. But that wasn’t enough to stop their imprisonment coming under greater scrutiny from sections of the media.
“The laojiao system is an ulcer on the rule of law, rendering it an empty phrase,” warned the Guangming Daily last month. “It is resolutely time to abolish it.”
The People’s Daily agreed that laojiao was “legally dubious” and “sometimes used as a tool of retaliation” . Under Chinese law, local authorities can impose sentences of up to three years in camps without court involvement. A fourth year can be added for bad behaviour.
Millions of people have been imprisoned on this basis since the 1950s and the system is frequently listed by human rights groups as one of the most troubling aspects of China’s judicial approach.
In October the State Council published a paper saying that it recognised that the system had faults but that it was working on a plan to reform, but not abolish it.
“The laojiao system plays an important role in maintaining social order,” Xinhua reported Jiang Wei, the head of a government committee on judicial reform. But the media and Chinese citizens were unsatisfied with the official response.
“Social stability cannot be built on the unlawful violation of human rights. Only the protection of rights and the rule of law will lead to social harmony,” was the riposte from the Beijing News.
And while the CCTV decision to air the interview with Ren caused some to cheer, the programme ultimately made for depressing viewing. After 15 months living in cramped, unsanitary conditions and working 12 hours day, Ren looked pale and thin.
He is now suing the Chongqing authorities for wrongful incarceration but says he is unsure whether he will be able to rebuild his life.
“I find I can’t adapt to life. I am scared, and I have lost my confidence,” Ren complained.
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