BEIJING (AP) — All it took was a handwritten note from police to send Zhao Meifu to a labor camp for a year in China’s arid northwest.
The farmer had been seeking redress for decades over a land grab by village officials. Tired of her complaints, police saw the labor camp as a quick way to get rid of her.
“They did not like my mother, so they locked her up,” Zhao’s son, Guo Dajun, said in a recent interview.
She was locked up in a long hated and often abused penal system known as labor re-education. Chinese police have used it to lock up tens of thousands of people for up to four years without a trial or a judge’s review.
Established to punish early critics of the Communist Party, it was retooled to focus on petty criminals but now is used by local officials to deal with people challenging their authority on issues including land rights and corruption.
Cases like Zhao’s last year have galvanized critics, many of them within the government, and China’s newly installed leadership is seizing on expectations for reform.
“There’s little left to be debated. It should be abolished right away,” said Hou Xinyi, a law professor from Nankai University in the city of Tianjin. Hou serves on China’s top political advisory body, which is meeting in Beijing this week alongside the national legislature. Commentators in the media and on the Internet are hoping that some deputies propose that the system be overhauled during the 13-day legislative session, which ends Sunday.
“Only the law should decide on a citizen’s personal freedom,” Hou said.
What to do with the system has become a test of Communist Party chief Xi Jinping’s commitment to advance the rule of law and temper police and other security officials who often run roughshod over the legal system.
Curbing or ending labor re-education would be a boost for legal reformers. The system is frequently used to silence minor government critics and ordinary Chinese like Zhao who are considered nuisances by local officials.
In 1989, officials seeking property for development schemes started seizing Zhao’s farmland in Shanzidun village, in the dry yellow hills outside the provincial capital of Lanzhou. She has asked higher-level authorities for the return of her land or fair compensation, to no avail.
In 2010, police sent her to labor re-education for a year; she was forced to do jobs like deshelling almonds but was soon released for health reasons. Last year, while visiting her son, a graduate student in Beijing, hometown police took her away. With a short, handwritten note, they reinstated her uncompleted 2010 sentence.
“I was so angry my blood pressure soared,” Zhao said of the day she was booked into the labor camp. “I felt there was not a thread of hope.”
Zhao was released after 18 days, officially on medical grounds, but she believes she was let out because of public pressure. Calls to the local labor camp and a government official overseeing the camp rang unanswered in several attempts.
Former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai and his police chief, Wang Lijun, used labor re-education to quell dissent before they were ousted a year ago in China’s highest-profile political scandal in years.
For an online posting questioning Bo’s crackdown, factory worker Liu Shiyin was given two years in a labor camp in 2009. He was accused of creating a “terrorist atmosphere.”
“There was no dignity to speak of,” in the camp, Liu recalled. “You had to squat to eat your meals. Life there was inhuman. Beating and chiding were common.”
Liu said he and the other inmates were forced to wrap thin copper wires onto tiny magnets to be used as electronic parts. “My fingers hurt so much I couldn’t sleep at night,” Liu said.
A skilled worker needed nine hours to complete the daily workload, and less dexterous inmates could spend more than 10 hours trying to meet their daily production quota, Liu said.
Reforms, if they materialize, are likely to be limited. Labor re-education is only part of a large penal system. Activists considered to be a threat to the party are routinely placed under house arrest or sent to prison on vaguely-defined charge of subversion, and that is not expected to change.
Legal experts are concerned that authorities might replace labor re-education with something even less accountable, like the makeshift off-the-books holding centers known as “black jails.” Local officials and police often use black jails, sometimes for months at a time, to house petitioners, people who are trying to bring grievances inflicted by local authorities to the attention of the central government.