Falun Gong practitioners watch a video at the Masanjia re-education through labor camp in northeast China's Liaoning province on May 22, 2001.
Falun Gong practitioners watch a video at the Masanjia re-education through labor camp in northeast China's Liaoning province on May 22, 2001. John Leicester/AP
After more than a half-century and the imprisonment of millions of people without trial, China officially moved to abolish its re-education through labor camp system at the end of last year.
When the Communist Party makes such sweeping policy statements, it pays to be a little skeptical. Last decade, the government abolished one detention system — and then secretly created another.
So, recently I headed out on a re-education through labor camp road trip to try to find out what the government is doing with its labor camps and what is happening to all those prisoners.
My assistant, Yang, drew up an itinerary based on addresses he found online. Once shrouded in secrecy, many camps are now pretty easy to find, thanks to inmates' attorneys, who have posted their locations so relatives can track down loved ones who are inside.
On a cloudless day, I rented a Buick and made my way along the Yan'an expressway, one of Shanghai's main elevated roads. After an hour or so, we exited the highway and passed a new outlet mall with a Gucci anchor store that looked as if it had been plucked out of an American suburb.
Ten minutes after that, we were driving past empty fields dotted with labor camps and prisons with 30-foot-high walls and watch towers.
From a distance, this former labor camp — about an hour outside Shanghai — resembles a suburban residential complex.
From a distance, this former labor camp — about an hour outside Shanghai — resembles a suburban residential complex. Frank Langfitt/NPR
The juxtaposition of luxury and authoritarianism might seem surreal elsewhere, but in China it's pretty normal and emblematic of the country's mix of repression and hypercapitalism.
I pulled up to the austere, gray stone entrance of a labor camp for juveniles and approached a pair of guards and asked if the camp was still open.
"It isn't now," said one guard. "The sign was taken down."
When I asked what the facility is used for these days, the guard opened his mouth to answer, only to have the other elbow him in the ribs to shut him up.
"At the moment, we're not too clear," the second guard said.
Such claims of official ignorance are pretty normal in China, too.
A couple of minutes away, down a two-lane country road, lies the Shanghai No. 3 Re-education Through Labor Camp. It's not what you might expect. Looking through the bars of a side gate, you can see a long boulevard with street lamps and rows of what look like freshly painted townhouses with balconies.
It looks like a suburban housing development. There's even an outdoor basketball court and running track.
The camp, now a drug rehab center, has a basketball court and track. It's not clear whether the facilities are for inmates or employees.
The camp, now a drug rehab center, has a basketball court and track. It's not clear whether the facilities are for inmates or employees. Frank Langfitt/NPR
There are dozens of cars inside, and a temporary wooden sign says the camp now operates as a drug rehabilitation center.
A nearby convenience store owner, Xu Jinhui, says inmates began pouring out of the camp last summer.
"They were liberated," he says happily. "No more re-education through labor! The government has a new policy. They had to let them out."
Most Chinese would refuse to discuss a politically sensitive subject like this, but Xu, a gregarious 38-year-old, warms to the topic. He says most of the camp's inmates weren't from Shanghai and came to his store looking for help.
"I took them to the bus station," recalls Xu, who adds that the labor camp had given them some traveling money. "They didn't know where they were. They had spent too many years inside the camp, and when they were released all of a sudden, they became disoriented."
Increased Public Scrutiny
Like most Chinese, Xu didn't like the re-education through labor camp system, because there was no due process and it was prone to abuse by police.
"If I don't like you, I can put you in a camp tomorrow," Xu says. "I can lock you up for six months, a year or even a few years. There's no legal basis. This violates people's human rights."
The Communist Party established re-education through labor camps in 1955 to punish perceived enemies such as "counter-revolutionaries" and those deemed "politically unreliable," according to Amnesty International.
Over the decades, the party used the camps to warehouse political critics, gadflies as well as petty criminals, drug addicts and prostitutes. As recently as 2007, China's Ministry of Justice estimated there were about 400,000 people in the country's 310 camps.
In the past few years, though, journalistic exposes on torture inside the camps and examples of gross injustice doomed the system, says Corinna-Barbara Francis, who studied the camps as Amnesty's China researcher.
For instance, in 2012, police in Hunan province locked up a woman because she publicly criticized them for protecting a brothel owner who had trafficked her 11-year-old daughter into prostitution.
"There were a number of cases that absolutely enraged the Chinese public," says Francis, who called the camps' closure "an amazing step."
"We are seeing a very interesting shift in China toward greater sensitivity on the part of authorities to domestic pressure and domestic opinion," she says.
For Some, Release Then Re-Incarceration
That doesn't mean Chinese people are now safe from extrajudicial detention.
Francis says the government still uses mental institutions and secret jails — often converted motels — to dispatch people it doesn't like.
"So, essentially, while they're closing the camps down, what we're seeing on the ground is that many of the sensitive groups that have always been targeted are continuing to be targeted," Francis says.
Among those targets is Falun Gong, the banned spiritual meditation group, which the Communist Party sees as a political threat. Some Falun Gong practitioners say that as they were being released from labor camp last year they were abducted again and taken to other detention sites.
"Actually, they didn't want to let us go," says a man surnamed Zhou, who served about a year in a re-education through labor camp in northeastern China's Heilongjiang province.
Zhou says on the day he was scheduled for release, government officials drove a car inside the camp and told him they would take him home. He became suspicious when he asked them to stop the car by the side of the road so he could urinate and two officials accompanied him.
Eventually, they took Zhou to a so-called Legal Education Center — really an empty office — where he was forced to watch Communist Party videos and pressured to renounce his beliefs.
"When my little sister tried to get into the brainwashing center to see me, the cops tasered her," Zhou recalls.
Zhou was allowed to leave after more than 40 days and returned home to look after his father, who is in his 80s and in poor health.
Another Falun Gong practitioner named Zuo was more fortunate. On the day of her release, police tried to nab her outside the camp's gates, but her mother, who had come to meet her, grabbed her left hand and wouldn't let go.
"Then the head of the local police station grabbed my right hand and dragged me in the direction of his car," Zuo recalls. "My mother was trying to drag me to her cab. It went on like this — no one was letting go."
Zuo says during the tug-of-war, her mother's lips turned purple and she began to twitch, but the police persisted. Finally, when Zuo's mother suggested they would both rather commit suicide than allow Zuo to be taken away again, the authorities let them go.