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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

We're going to get a glimpse this morning into one of the worst aspects of China's authoritarian rule.

WERTHEIMER: It is China's system of re-education camps, where people have been sent for years without trial. Sometimes they're sent away simply for complaining about local officials.

INSKEEP: As we've reported on this program, China's now talking of reforming those camps. But people who know the camps best - former inmates - say it's past time for the camps to close.

NPR's Frank Langfitt recently met with former prisoners who describe their days of labor.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: I met the former inmates in a back alley in China's capital, meeting in a quiet apartment in Beijing.

(SOUNDBITE OF OVERLAPPING VOICES)

LANGFITT: They're so desperate to tell their stories, they clap when they see me. More than a dozen people here waiting to talk, so we're going to have to do this one by one.

Shen Lixiu is first up. Her tale is numbingly familiar. Officials in the eastern Chinese city of Nanjing knocked down her karaoke parlor for development. But, she says, the compensation offered was less than 20 percent of what she'd invested in the place. So Shen complained to the central government, for which she was sentenced to labor camp for a year. Once inside, Shen says camp workers tried to force her to accept the compensation.

SHEN LIXIU: (Through translator) I refused to sign my name; they beat me, knocked out my front teeth.

LANGFITT: Shen's 58 year old. She has salt-and-pepper hair and wears a plum-colored padded coat. To illustrate the beatings, Shen reaches into her mouth and removes a set of false teeth. Her mouth forms a ghoulish grin with a dark gap where her four front teeth were kicked out. Shen said fellow inmates beat her in exchange for reduced sentences - a practice human rights investigators say is common.

LIXIU: (Through translator) Everyone went to sleep at night, not me. They gave me a small stool, forcing me to stand on it. Once you fell to the ground, people will come to beat you. They asked drug addicts and prostitutes to beat you up.

LANGFITT: After seven months, Shen couldn't take it anymore. She signed the compensation agreement and was released. But Shen continues to protest her treatment.

LIXIU: (Through translator) I want to call on the leaders to abolish re-education through labor camps. Inmates can no longer be tortured like this.

LANGFITT: One hundred and sixty thousand people were imprisoned in 350 re-education through labor camps at the end of 2008, according to China's Ministry of Justice. Inmates include prostitutes, drug users and people like Shen, who've petitioned the central government to try to redress the wrongs of local officials.

MAYA WANG: I'm Maya Wang and I'm a researcher for Human Rights Watch in the Asia Division.

LANGFITT: Wang says local authorities use labor camps to shut up their critics with minimal paperwork.

, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH: What is happening on the ground is that the local officials don't want their dirty laundry to be aired in the open. The police controls the process. They don't have to go through the courts and they don't have to present any type of evidence, just a piece of paperwork and says you disturbed social order and then the petitioner can be sent to a facility for up to four years.

LANGFITT: The Communist Party built the labor camps in the 1950s to punish political enemies, including landlords and other capitalists. Today the camps are driven by the same motives they were initially designed to punish.

Again, Maya Wang.

, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH: These re-education through labor facilities have become more like profit-making enterprises for the local government to basically have free labor that they could force to work for many hours a day to produce products at very, very low cost for domestic and international consumption.

LANGFITT: Ex-prisoners say they worked for up to 16 hours a day, making everything from circuit boards and uniforms to wire and blue jeans for little or no pay.

Tang Shuxiu went to Beijing in 2011. She wanted to complain that her local government work unit hadn't given her an apartment she thought she was entitled to. Police picked her up before she got out of the train station.

TANG SHUXIU: (Through translator) They asked, are you here to petition? I said yes. All of the petitioners were taken to a holding facility. I think petitioning doesn't mean I am doing something bad or committing a crime. I should tell the truth.

LANGFITT: Like Tang, many petitioners are honest to their detriment. Tang's candor landed her in a labor camp in east China's Jiangsu Province. She spent more than 12 hours a day sewing the seams of blue jeans.

SHUXIU: (Through translator) When I first started making blue jeans, I worked slowly. Our team leader smacked my hands with his shoes. He said these are all for export, you've got take it seriously.

Tang, 51, was imprisoned for complaining about her housing. Sometimes people are sent to labor camp for complaining about labor camp.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

LANGFITT: Hundreds of petitioners staged protests in Beijing during a visit by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in 2009. Among them was Zhu Guiqin. Her brother had been put in a labor camp for alleged involvement in the banned spiritual group Falun Gong.

ZHU GUIQIN: (Through translator) On the day when Pelosi arrived, some petitioners and I tried to go to her event and we were taken to the local police station.

LANGFITT: Police sent Zhu to a labor camp in Shenyang, a city in China's frigid Northeast. Zhu, 49, is a feisty personality. It can be hard to get a word in edgewise, even when you're interviewing her. Eventually the guards tired of her defiance. Zhu says they put her in solitary confinement in a tiny room with no bed.

GUIQIN: (Through translator) They confiscated my foam rubber mattress, saying this is not a hotel. Are you here to enjoy your life? They dismantled the radiator and let me sleep on the floor.

LANGFITT: On winter nights temperatures in Shenyang can drop below zero. Zhu wrapped up in a sweater, coats and quilts to stay warm. The room had no windows. Zhu says the air was awful.

GUIQIN: (Through translator) I couldn't breathe. I was suffocating. There were no holes through which I could breathe. I lay on my stomach, facing the narrow space between the door and the floor to suck air from the outside.

LANGFITT: Stories like this have circulated on China's Internet, driving public opposition to the camps. Wang Gongyi is a retired labor camp researcher with the Ministry of Justice. He says the whole issue is way overblown. For one thing, he says, petitioners only make up a tiny fraction of inmates. However, Wang does believe the days of re-education through labor are numbered.

WANG GONGYI: (Through translator) I think it will probably be abolished because the majority of government people support abolition. The core of the problem is decisions are made arbitrarily. The system doesn't strictly follow legal procedure. Good people can be easily wronged.

LANGFITT: Wang adds that many camps have already stopped taking prisoners.

GONGYI: (Through translator) Now people are only coming out, not going in, so the system only has 30,000 to 40,000 people.

LANGFITT: With official policy still unclear, though, some human rights activists are skeptical. Maya Wang of Human Rights Watch wonders if officials will stop sending petitioners to camps, only to house them in illegal black jails.

, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH: What we fear is that one system is gone and then another system crops up.

LANGFITT: Labor camps still have one big group of supporters: China's police. For them, giving up an authoritarian tool that has proven so convenient for so long would be a big step. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.

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