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China labour camps on parliament agenda

04 March 2013, 12:01

Chongqing - Two years of forced labour in China's controversial "re-education" system left Peng Hong's life shattered. Now there are ever-louder calls for reform as the country's parliament meets.

Peng was at home in Chongqing on a rainy evening in October 2009 with his wife, planning for the arrival of their first child, when police knocked on the door.

They wanted to question him over a cartoon he had forwarded online mocking a crime crackdown launched in the south-western metropolis by its now disgraced leader, Bo Xilai.

Six days later he was standing naked in the reception area of a "re-education through labour" camp, bent over with his hands behind his back and staring at the floor, as stick-wielding guards beat anyone who looked up.

The 37-year-old is among hundreds of thousands in China who have had their lives uprooted by local police panels empowered to send people to the camps for up to four years without a trial.

"When they told me I would do two years of re-education I felt like my world had come crashing down," said Peng.

"I was very scared. Everyone says it is a terrifying place. I have no vices and I had done nothing wrong, but I knew I would suffer."


He spent his first three months in detention undergoing intensive "re-education", which he compared to military training for new recruits.

He was then sent to work in a canteen at another camp, where his shifts were punctured only by forced recitals of "red" songs extolling the virtues of the Communist Party and the system which robbed him of his freedom.

The re-education scheme, known as "laojiao", is blamed for widespread rights abuses as corrupt local officials seek to punish whistleblowers and petitioners who try to complain about them to higher authorities.

China's risk-averse leadership in Beijing has so far failed to remodel or eliminate the archaic system, which was established under Mao Zedong in the 1950s as a tool to impose ideological control.

But the issue is expected to be high on the agenda when the country's legislators meet this week for the annual session of the National People's Congress (NPC), or parliament.

The legislature is a rubber-stamp body that does nothing without the Communist Party's bidding, but calls for reform from government critics and those who have suffered under the system have increased in recent months.

$18 000 compensation

Speculation that change was on the agenda mounted in January, when state media reports emerged briefly that laojiao would be abolished. But they were swiftly deleted and replaced with predictions of reforms, with few details and no timetable.

"As an ordinary person, you will never know about the details (of abuses)," said Peng, a former security guard.

"But then the media revealed how the law had been violated, that they (the police) have cracked down on freedom of speech and put people in re-education for very small things."

Never smiling, and maintaining a determined stare, Peng's words are tinged with anger when speaking of his ordeal.

"I think there should be a trial procedure before a person is given labour education punishment," he said. "It shouldn't be like it was with me, when a person's freedom could be restricted by a police committee."

Many commentators believe that even if there was a strong desire from Beijing for reform, opposition from local areas could stifle any real change for a number of years.

"When the central government has a policy directive some local governments have ways to deviate from that," Sonny Lo, a professor at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, told AFP.

"So even if the government announced that it will be abolished, we can expect some sort of laojiao system to remain for the foreseeable future.

"There is an implementation gap in China because it is such a huge country, and as there will also be opposition from the local authorities, there will be a 'soft-landing' approach in dealing with this issue."

Peng received $18 000 compensation last September after he won a campaign to have his sentence rescinded, following Bo's fall in a murder and corruption scandal, along with his now-imprisoned head of police Wang Lijun.

But the scars of re-education have not healed for him or his family. He blames his daughter's health problems on the stress suffered by his wife during his detention, and says he cannot get work because of the enduring psychological effects.

He was once proud of his reputation, and that of his family, but he is now ostracised by his neighbours, he added despondently, having insisted the interview take place in a hotel kilometres from his home.

"They believe I did something wrong," he said. "We are still suffering now."



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