China's pledge to curb forced labour camps raises hopes, doubts

Some Chinese citizens who have spent time locked in the country's labour camps say they are not reassured by word the government plans to reform the system of 're-education through labour.'

Government says 160,000 locked up in forced labour camps

Forced labour in China

10 years ago
Duration 2:28
Doubts are being raised about efforts in China to eliminate labour camps, where people are forced to work for up to 4 years for a wage of less than $2 a month

The letter, like one sent in a bottle, crossed an ocean and ended up at a Kmart store in Portland, Ore.

Julie Keith, a 42-year-old charity worker, found it in a box of Halloween decoration she had bought.

The handwritten letter was folded in four and slipped between two styrofoam headstones. The whole package was sealed in cellophane.

Meng Jianzhu, left, shown here with Pakistan's Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, had announced earlier this month that the Chinese government would stop using the system of re-education through labour by the end of 2013. (Faisal Mahmood/Reuters)

The author of the letter, expressing himself in broken English and in Chinese, asks whoever finds it to "kindly resend this to the World Human Right Organization."

The letter says these decorations were produced in a labour camp located in the city of Shenyang, in northeast China.

"People who work here have to work 15 hours a day, without Saturday, Sunday breaks and any holidays, otherwise they will suffer torturement, beat and rude remark."

In his plea for help, the author added that workers are paid 10 yuan a month, not even $2.

Julie Keith handed in the letter to U.S. authorities, who are trying to confirm its authenticity.

It is illegal to import goods in the United States – and in Canada — that were produced under torture or forced labour.

The story of the letter made the news briefly in the sleepy days between Christmas and New Year.

In early January, however, hope of change emerged from China.

Laojiao: re-education through labour

On January 7, Meng Jianzhu, the head of the political and legal committee of the Chinese Communist Party, announced that the government would "stop using" the system of "re-education through labour" by the end of 2013.

Inspired by the gulag of the Soviet Union, this system was introduced in China in the 1950s.

It’s highly controversial because it enables authorities to detain people for up to four years, without ever giving them a court hearing.  Today, the laojiao, as it is called in Chinese, consists of a network of roughly 350 camps. The government claims 160,000 people are locked up in these camps, but human rights groups believe the number to be much higher.

'The laojiao system violates the Chinese constitution and legislation. The problem is: if they abolish it, what will come after? Will they simply replace it with a new system?'—Hua Chunhui, labour camp worker

However, the joy surrounding the news that the system may be abolished was short-lived.

The original articles, even those from state-run media, quickly disappeared from the internet.

Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, published a watered down version, claiming that Meng Jianzhu had said the government would "advance reforms" of the re-education through labour system.

Watching this unfold from their home in Nanjing, in southern China, Wang Yi and her husband, Hua Chunhui, weren’t reassured.

Both of them have been locked up separately in labour camps because of things they had written on Twitter. They’ve heard the call of reform for years and to them, it doesn’t sound quite right.

Hua Chunhui told us, "The laojiao system violates the Chinese constitution and legislation. The problem is: if they abolish it, what will come after? Will they simply replace it with a new system?"

His question is legitimate. Defenders of the system claim it is essential to maintain social stability. So, could the government really do without such a practical way of temporarily silencing people?

And when you add to that the economic incentive: a workforce producing goods for free, meaning some people in the system are greatly profiting from it, the perspective of completely abolishing laojiao seems ever more distant.