In January, as Xi Jinping’s term as head of the Communist Party of China was beginning, the head of the Political and Legal Committee kinda sorta promised the end of “re-education through labor.” Local police have been able send at their discretion those “disrupting public order” to labor camps since the 1957 crackdown on the freer expression of the 100 Flowers period. Even now the camps hold over 150,000 for as long as four years.
The labor camps, alongside the full criminalization of labor protests and other challenges to the regime, have underpinned China’s state-capitalist labor system. Like the workhouses of Ebenezer Scrooge-era England, and post-Civil War sheriffs emptying their jailhouses onto Southern plantations, forced labor is intended as a threat to all the workers not yet incarcerated.
Popular outrage, not a reform-minded regime, is the impetus behind any move to soften the labor camp system. Last August Tang Hui was given a year and a half in a labor camp in retaliation for daily petitioning that a harsher sentence be given to the seven men who had raped her then-eleven-year-old daughter and dragged her into prostitution. Public outrage forced Tang Hui’s release after eight days.
But this January, when Tang Hui demanded an apology and compensation for the actions taken against her, the authorities denied her an apology and actually affirmed her sentence. Likewise, the promise to end labor camps, leaked as a trial balloon, was almost immediately twisted into proposals to “reform” the re-education-through-labor system of unfreedom.