Voices from China

New documentaries take on the horrors of China’s labor camp system

(May 7, 2013) Two new documentaries released this month reveal more horrifying details about China’s notorious re-education through labor (RTL) system. Other recent exposés of systemic human rights abuses in the RTL have led to calls to scrap the long-contested practice entirely. China’s new leadership is reportedly reviewing it.

By Lisa Peryman for Voices from China, with files from Mu Lan, Probe International

Dating back to the 1950s, China’s RTL system was originally, and devilishly, designed to “reform” intellectuals critical of Communist rule. Made up of officials, democratic activists, journalists, teachers, scholars, economists, lawyers, students, artists and writers, the country’s intellectuals had, at the time, been freely encouraged by Mao Zedong to vent their pent-up criticism of the state, as part of his brief Hundred Flowers Movement to liberate freedom of thought and speech. But the invitation quickly revealed itself as a trap. Exposed and flushed out by Mao, outspoken intellectuals were soon rounded up and imprisoned in RTL “re-education”camps; a model of punishment considered useful to the state for its returns in thought reform and economic gain, based on the Soviet Gulag.

Before long, these camps would be utilized, not only as a source of slave labor, but to contain other so-called “bad elements,” usually without trial for up to three to four years, including children.

The latter is the subject of  “Juvenile Laborers Confined in Dabao” by Xie Yihui. Xie gained her entry into documentary film-making assisting Ai Xiaoming, a human rights activist and academic-turned-director, with Ai’s film investigation into the “tofu-dreg”construction of schools that collapsed and killed at least 5,000 students during a 2008 earthquake in Sichuan Province. Xie borrowed equipment to continue film-making in and around Sichuan. The setting of “Juvenile Laborers Confined in Dabao” is a children’s labor camp located in Dabao Township, in Sichuan’s Ebian County where 4,000-5,000 boys and girls were interned in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

In this review, Ai encapsulates the journey of Xie’s camera as she tracks Zeng Boyan, a former Sichuan Daily reporter, and his work to uncover the grim legacy of the Dabao facility through the recollections of survivors who passed through there.

By tracing the investigator’s footsteps, we see how this tragedy began. In the 1950s, several thousand children were interned here as the result of China’s adopting the Soviet Union’s practice of reforming wayward children. These children—ages ten to 17—were incarcerated for various reasons, but most weren’t criminals. Many committed small trespasses, were the products of parental neglect, or their parents believed that RTL would provide an opportunity for their children to learn how to work. Others were there because public security organs needed to fill quotas for catching criminals. These children were subjected to inhuman persecution at the Dabao camp, and many died there without anyone knowing.

The horrors we know about the RTL system mostly come from the experiences of adults. But this film reveals the origins of this system. It was established by the State Council during the height of the Anti-Rightist rectification campaign in 1957, when many politically-labeled Rightists were sent to RTL camps. But the scope was expanded to include other so-called bad elements. The RTL system that targeted minors was characterized particularly by confusion and illegality because it blurred the distinction between crime and non-crime. It seems that in an effort to reeducate neglected children, it also obscured the line between welfare and punishment. But from the recollections of those involved, the system, from its inception, emphasized crime and punishment. Even when children were on the verge of starving to death and their parents begged to have them released, they were unable to get their children back because the authorities said they were criminals and had not been sufficiently reformed.

Ai likens the Dabao camp to the spectre of Germany’s Auschwitz. Her words are haunting in their description of Zeng Boyan’s walk through “the gullies of history” in his effort to bear witness to a historical tragedy. Bearing witness, says Ai, imbues the spirit of China’s independent documentary film-making movement: “assuming the responsibility of history, going forward without fear, and duty-bound not to turn back.”

Another documentary release this month, “Above the Ghosts’ Heads: The Women of Masanjia Labor Camp” by Du Bin, a former New York Times photographer with several film titles to his name, also focuses on China’s RTL system, this time, a controversial prison farm for women — including whistleblowers on official corruption and Falun Gong practitioners — that remains in operation today.

Founded in October 1999 in China’s northern Liaoning Province, the Masanjia Labor Camp, also known as the “Ideology Education School of Liaoning Province,” is spun by officials as a model for other labor camps across China.  Former detainees interviewed by Du Bin chronicle a world of depravity and brutality.

The camp, built on land that was formerly a graveyard, hence the movie’s title, is described by the women imprisoned above ground as the worlds of the dead and the living “mixed up together.” The roles of the interned women and the bodies buried beneath them are reversed, they say: “Those underground ghosts live on Earth, aboveground, while we live in Hell, underground.”

Liu Hua, a former Masanjia inmate, and the main feature of Du Bin’s documentary, recounts how she committed her experience of brutality there to paper, which she would then memorize and destroy by eating each page. The atrocities Liu recalls depict an environment of torture in which inmates were subject to solitary confinement, stretched, left hanging and forced to sit tied tightly with legs stretched forward at an angle to the body (known as the “tiger bench” position), force-fed by a vagina specula, as well as tied naked to a “death bed” and left to lie as though dead for months, never leaving the bed. The list of abuses runs on and on and is, Liu says, not isolated to the confines of Masanjia but a reflection of the goings on at hundreds of labor camps across China.

A transcript from “Above the Ghosts’ Heads: The Women of Masanjia Labor Camp” is available here.

An exposé for the in-depth news section of Lens magazine, a Chinese general interest publication with a sharp-tack aesthetic, under the Hong Kong-based SEEC Media Group — best known for the hard-hitting investigative journalism of another of its publications, Caijing magazine — brought the Masanjia prison story to a nationwide audience last month with a shocking article detailing stories of abuse that echo closely those unearthed by “Above the Ghosts’ Heads.”

Written by Yuan Lin and Xu Xiaotong, with photos by Zhen Hongge, the 20,000-word account is the work of five years of interviews with ex-RTL prisoners, including Masanjia and other prison farms, as well as former and current officials at Masanjia. According to the report, torture is not only routine at Masanjia but its techniques rank as commonplace at other camps as well.  Like Du Bin’s film, prisoners’ grueling work schedules are described as slave labor for textile production, including the manufacture of women’s apparel for overseas markets.

The Huffington Post reports:

Legally, work was supposed to be restricted to six hours a day and be fairly compensated, but inmates were frequently forced to work longer hours and were paid 10 yuan ($1.50) a month. State media said Monday that the provincial government has started an investigation.

Various publications describe a furious public outcry following the release of the Lens article on April 6 and a subsequent backlash* by authorities. Although, the print run of the exposé at first attracted little attention, the online version ranked as the most popular story carried by China’s four biggest news sites on April 8 before it was censored and then re-posted, mostly by Chinese news sites operating outside of the country.

Interestingly, the article was only deleted from Chinese Web portals after it had already been broadly circulated. Even state mouthpiece People’s Daily Online included the story in its “hot topics” news list, although that inclusion later disappeared.

The Epoch Times, a multi-language, international media organization with a long-standing interest in the persecution of the spiritual group Falun Gong, reported on the RTL scandal, quoting Wen Zhao, an analyst of contemporary Chinese affairs with the related NTD Television, saying:

“There are hundreds of labor camps in China, all doing things along the same lines as Masanjia.” …

The Times further notes that according to Wen:

… the appearance of the article on People’s Daily Online “to a certain degree” reflects the thinking of top Party leaders.

But the fact that it was soon deleted “also shows that the Party has not reached a consensus, and that the resistance to abolishing the labor camp system is still terribly ferocious.”

* According to this report by BBC News, Lens magazine has been temporarily shut down by the government of Liaoning Province, where the Masanjia Labor Camp is located. The magazine also announced on May 5 that the release of its May issue would be postponed by approximately a week.

Related story:

China detains journalist who documented labour camp abuses, Tiananmen crackdown accounts


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