Under current laws, Chinese citizens can be sent without trial to a labour camp — known as laojiao, or “reeducation-through-labour”— for up to three to four years.
While the system was developed in the 1950s for political prisoners, its scope has widened in recent years and it is now often used to punish relatively minor offenses — Hong Kong University legal scholar Fu Hualing has noted that the term laojiao “is elastic enough to include most, if not all, offenses”.
For now, however, controversy is higher than ever after a 20,000-word article published in Chinese by Lens Magazine describes horrific conditions at Masanjia Women’s Reeducation Through labour Camp in northeastern China’s Liaoning province.
One shocking aspect of the article is the description of alleged torture methods used at the camp:
- “Big hang”: An inmate is hung by cuffs on her four limbs, forcing her body to stretch to its limit.
- “Small room”: An inmate is kept in solitary confinement inside a tiny room with no windows. They must do everything in this room, including urinating and defecating.
- “Tiger Bench”: An inmate is cuffed to a metal bench in a way designed to keep their legs bent upwards for a long period of time. If they struggle, the cuffs tighten.
- “Death bed”: An iron or wooden board to which the inmate is attached if they try to go on hunger strike. The inmate is stripped naked and force-fed — there is a hole in the “bed” for urinating and defecating.
- “Force-feeding”: Perhaps this one seems self-explanatory, but the detail of the report is horrifying. Prison guards reportedly use a cervical speculum to open the mouth of the inmate for food. The cervical speculum is left in the mouth til the next meal.
The South China Morning Post also reports that prison guards had allegedly used electric rods to torture prisoners, who were expected to work 12-14 hour days for little or no pay.
According to the Associated Press, Lens Magazine is a “a little-known general interest magazine that prides itself on contemporary photography”. It is part of a larger group best known for the well-respected business magazine Caijing.
There have been allegations of torture and mistreatment in the Laojiao system before — earlier this year the New York Times said it was described by ex-inmates as a system of “inedible food, overcrowded cells and brute violence”. However, it is extremely rare for the mistreatment to be featured with such detail in Chinese media.
Exactly how many people there are in laojiao camps is unclear. In 2005 the BBC reported that 300,000 people were thought to be kept in over 300 camps, though exact figures have been hard to come by — earlier this year the Ministry of Justice said that just 60,000 people remained in the system.
According to The Guardian, China doesn’t publish details of why people were detained. In 2005 it hinted that most people imprisoned in the system were in for drug-related charges — thieves and sex workers may also find themselves in the prisons.
However, the system came under extra scrutiny last year mother was sentenced to 18 months without trial in August.
Her crime? Campaigning for tougher penalties on seven men who abducted and raped her 7-year-old daughter. Following public outcry, Tang was released after just a few weeks.
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