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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

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And I'm Steve Inskeep.

You can follow along with us next on a trip to China, to locations that are not supposed to exist anymore. Last year, China moved to abolish its notorious system of re-education through labor camps. For more than half a century, the country put people in labor camps without trial if officials disapproved of what they did or said.

Since those days are said to be over, NPR's Frank Langfitt went to find out what has become of the country's several hundred labor camps and their prisoners.

(SOUNDBITE OF AN ALARM AND A VEHICLE)

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: It's a beautiful, sunny morning in Shanghai, and I'm heading off on a reeducation through labor camp road trip. I'm going to drive around the city and the outskirts to visit some of the labor camps, to see if they've actually closed, and what's going on. My assistant Yang has put together an itinerary, and we have a GPS.

Yang, where'd you find the addresses for these labor camps?

YANG: I found these addresses from websites of some Shanghai law firms. Some lawyers put out this information so that inmates' relatives can visit their loved ones.

LANGFITT: We drive for an hour, and then leave the expressway.

GPS VOICE: After 400 yards, turn left.

(SOUNDBITE OF AN ALARM)

LANGFITT: So, I just took a left hand turn, and I'm in front of a Sofitel resort with all these fountains and red-tile roof. It's kind of a Spanish mission-style resort. Five minutes beyond the resort, we're passing labor camps and prisons with 30-foot-high walls and watchtowers. 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 hyper-capitalism.

Along the road, we come to the austere, gray stone entrance to a labor camp for juveniles.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

LANGFITT: I approach a pair of guards and ask if it's still open. (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

LANGFITT: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

LANGFITT: (Foreign language spoken)

A guard says the sign has been removed, and it's no longer a labor camp. So, what's it used for now? One of the guards opens his mouth to answer, only to have the other elbow him in the ribs to shut him up.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

LANGFITT: At the moment, he says, we're not too clear.

Those sorts of claims of official ignorance are pretty normal in China, too. A couple of minutes away, down a two-lane country road, lies the Shanghai Number 3 Reeducation Through Labor Camp. It's amazing. It's not at all what I expected. It looks like there are these big kind of town-house villas, with kind of like fake-tile roofs and a long boulevard. And it almost looks - it's really weird - it almost looks like a housing complex.

There's even a basketball court and a running track and a temporary wooden sign that says: The Camp Now Operates as a Drug Rehabilitation Center.

Xu Jinhui, who owns a convenience store nearby, says inmates began pouring out last summer.

XU JINHUI: (Through translator) They were liberated. The reeducation through labor system was abolished. No more reeducation through labor. The government has a new policy. They had to let them out.

LANGFITT: Xu says most on the inmates weren't from Shanghai, and came to his store looking for help.

JINHUI: (Through translator) I took them to the bus station. 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.

LANGFITT: Xu says he's glad the camp finally released its inmates.

JINHUI: (Through Translator) Reeducation through labor certainly isn't good. If I don't like you, I can put you in a camp tomorrow. 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.

CORINNA-BARBARA FRANCIS: We are seeing the dismantling of this particular institution, which is an amazing step.

LANGFITT: Corinna-Barbara Francis worked as Amnesty International's China researcher. She says journalistic exposes on torture in the camps, as well as gross injustice, doomed the system. 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.

FRANCIS: There were a sudden number of cases that absolutely enraged the Chinese public. I think we are seeing a very interesting shift in China towards greater sensitivity, on the part of authorities, towards domestic pressure, towards domestic opinion.

LANGFITT: That doesn't mean Chinese people are now safe from extra-judicial detention. Francis says the government still uses mental institutions and secret jails, often converted motels, to warehouse people it doesn't like.

FRANCIS: 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.

LANGFITT: Like Falun Gong. The Communist Party has banned the spiritual meditation group, which it sees as a political threat. Some Falun Gong practitioners say they were abducted as they were being released from labor camps last year.

A man surnamed Zhou, from northeastern Heilongjiang Province, explains.

ZHOU: (Through Translator) When I was coming out of the labor camp, they drove a car through the gate and I was asked to get in. I thought they were taking me home.

LANGFITT: Instead, they took him to a so-called Legal Education Center - really an empty office. Zhou says he was forced to watch Communist Party videos and pressured to renounce his beliefs.

ZHOU: (Through Translator) When my little sister tried to get into the brainwashing center to see me, the cops tasered her.

LANGFITT: Zhou says he knows a dozen Falun Gong practitioners who were immediately detained after their release from labor camp. The legal education center let Zhou leave after more than 40 days. After spending a combined 13 months in custody, Zhou says he's happy to - finally - be home.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.

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