China’s state media reports that this year may finally see the Communist Party address the human rights atrocity that is its extrajudicial forced labor camps.
Initial reports, citing the head of the department of security and appearing on the Chinese state run CCTV microblog site, had indicated that the camps would be scrapped altogether, prompting a slew of reports at this apparent human rights victory. The reports were then removed without explanation and official word was released that China would only be considering “reform” rather than retirement, something that will in no way satisfy human rights groups or Chinese dissidents.
China’s “Re-education Through Labor” System
Since 1957, China has used forced labor camps, once referred to as Re-education Through Labor (RTS), to sentence petty criminals to up to four years confinement without any kind of court involvement which, critics have argued, allows the presiding party to essentially run a police state where political denunciation can immediately be quelled through use of the labor camps.
It is estimated that there may be as many as 350 labor camps in China, with official records suggesting they hold a total of 160,000 inmates — this is a figure human rights groups dispute, however, saying that a true count could be anywhere between 200,000 to two million.
Accounts of abuses and even torture are common from those who have been subjected to life in the labor camps.
In recent years, the Chinese people have become much less tolerant of the camps and, fueled by the country’s media daring to take an interest in stories about life in the camps, further unrest has mounted.
In particular, stories such as that of Tang Hui, a mother sent to one RTL camp in August of 2012 for demanding the government take action against two men who raped her young daughter, have served to demonstrate just how stifling the threat of the camps can be. Tang was later released but this seemed to prompt a senior official responsible for judicial system reforms to acknowledged that there was “consensus” that the program had to be changed, a mild statement that in a climate of tight-lipped secrecy like that fostered by the presiding Communist party was as definitive as any made in recent times.
Do You Own Something Made in China’s Forced Labor Camps?
The RTL camps have since 1999 been used as a means for the government to deter and even eradicate the practice of Falun Gong, a spiritual philosophy first introduced in China in 1992 through public lectures by its founder Li Hongzhi. The practice quickly grew in size and while initially finding favor with officials, its popularity among tens of millions of people and, in particular, its independence from the state, became a concern for security officials within the Communist Party, which began a crackdown wherein it deemed Falun Gong to be a “heretical organization” and created an Internet blockade against all websites that mention the practice.
Since that time it is thought that hundreds of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners have been subject to extrajudicial imprisonment, with some reports suggesting psychiatric abuse and torture. As such, Falun Gong adherents have now become a leading force among China’s strong and persistent dissident community.
What has also been subject of world attention is how China has used the RTL to prop up its role as the world’s manufacturer, and how western companies have benefited.
The story of Jennifer Zeng, a Falun Gong practitioner who appeared in a recent documentary called “Free China,” made international headlines and prompted an investigation when she revealed that, having fled to Australia after being forced to make products in one of Beijing’s forced labor camps, she noticed that the stuffed toy rabbit being used in one of Nestle’s Nesquik advertisements was one of the things she had been forced to make. Nestle has since taken steps to eliminate dealings with producers who use forced labor and child labor camps, though critics charge Nestle’s involvement is just one example of a company that benefits from this human rights abuse.
Most recently, Julie Keith of Oregon found a folded up letter hidden in a $29.99 Kmart Halloween graveyard decoration kit that she had bought some time before but never opened. The letter, unsigned, said, “If you occasionally buy this product, please kindly resend this letter to the World Human Right Organization. Thousands people here who are under the persicution [sic] of the Chinese Communist Party Government will thank and remember you forever.”
The letter, written in Chinese characters and broken English, said it originated from a Chinese forced labor camp and described the horrendous treatment those people within the camp received. The letter’s authenticity was at first doubted, but U.S. authorities have begun to investigate the matter seriously as, broadly speaking, it remains an offence to import goods that were made through forced labor. The letter’s true origins may never be known, but human rights groups noted that its descriptions of the conditions in RTL camps tallied with the information they had amassed.
What Does News of Reform Mean for China’s Forced Labor Camps?
Human rights groups have been cautious to praise news of reform.
Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, is quoted as pointing out that the Party’s recent change of leaders may have marked a turning point, saying, “It has been my sense that Xi Jinping means business and that there would be a departure from the caretaking years of [outgoing president Hu Jintao] and [outgoing premier Wen Jiabao],” but he cautioned that anything other than outright abolition could lead to just a “somewhat milder form of administrative detention.”
Human Rights Watch continues to urge the Chinese government to entirely abolish the RTL system and enact new laws to create a system that can deal with minor crimes in a way that is consistent with the Chinese Constitution and international human rights obligations.
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