The story as it appears in the April edition of Lens
The recurrent exposure of individuals sent on dubious charges to reeducation through labor (RTL) is one important impetus to growing consensus about the need to reform or abolish RTL in China. Details of cases involving online criticism or petitioning have galvanized opinion against the nearly 60-year-old system of administrative detention, which central authorities indicate will undergo reform later this year.
The past few days have added urgency to an overhaul of the RTL system. In its April issue (published on April 6), Lens magazine included a 14-page exposé of exploitation, abuse, and torture at the Masanjia women’s RTL facility in Liaoning Province. Based on interviews with more than 20 women formerly incarcerated there—most of whom were sent to Masanjia over the past decade as punishment for petitioning—the article documents dehumanizing treatment in an institution where power can be exercised with near complete impunity.
Domestic Media Wildfire
The article is remarkable for its detailed descriptions of conditions at Masanjia and its corroboration of detainee accounts by labor-camp staff. Coming from Lens, a mainland publication owned by the publishers of popular financial magazine Caijing, the report arguably lends concern over RTL abuse more weight and traction inside China than reports by Western media or NGOs. Human rights organizations have reported the appalling conditions in RTL facilities before, and many of the accounts of torture at Masanjia echo allegations that have been raised for many years by practitioners of Falun Gong, banned by the Chinese government in 1999. In late 2012, Masanjia was named in mainstream Western media after an Oregon woman opened a box of Halloween decorations to find a letter apparently enclosed by a detainee at that women’s RTL facility. The letter described workers laboring for long hours with little rest and nearly negligible pay in order to avoid torture or abuse.
Once online, the Lens story created an immediate sensation. A slightly shortened version of the article was the most-read item on four major Chinese news sites. According to analysis (subsequently deleted from the Internet) by the “Public Opinion Monitoring Office” of People’s Daily Online, by noon on April 8, at least 420,000 had participated in online discussion of the report. The story could be found on more than 200 news sites and web forums, and it was discussed in 16,000 microblog posts, up from just over 200 the day before. Discussion has been overwhelmingly negative and has strengthened calls for the abolition of RTL and better oversight of the criminal justice system. Based on the data, analysts predicted that the public would become increasingly incensed and warned relevant authorities to “pay close attention to the potential for further developments.”
Official responses to the allegations have so far been mixed. On the one hand, authorities in Liaoning announced that they would form a special investigative team, including members of the media and the local people’s congress, to look into the charges. (This resembles the response of Yunnan officials who were faced with public pressure over a series of suspicious deaths in police detention centers in 2009.) On the other hand, officials from the Central Publicity Department of the Chinese Communist Party reportedly issued instructions on April 9 prohibiting media outlets from “reposting, reporting, or commenting” on the Masanjia story. In response, many websites have pulled the article, although, at present, most of the Lens report remains openly available online.
Extreme Corporal Punishment
The most shocking details from the Lens article are of inhuman and degrading punishment. Formerly incarcerated women describe being sent to solitary confinement in tiny cells with as little as two square meters of floor space. Inadequate air circulation left women—many of whom already suffered from physical ailments—gasping for breath and nosing the ground for drafts that might waft under the door. These damp, fetid spaces lacked adequate heating in winter, and the women often had no choice but to relieve themselves on the floor. One woman describes being handcuffed to a cell door and forced to remain standing day and night for two weeks. Although Ministry of Justice regulations limit the use of solitary confinement cells to a maximum of 10 days, women recount being held for months at a time.
The article also reports beatings, reckless use of electric batons, bodily suspension, and use of the notorious “tiger bench.” Women were hung, their outstretched arms handcuffed to the upper frames of bunk beds, so that the tips of their toes just barely touched the ground. Others were hung in awkward positions with their bodies stretched and contorted. One woman described being suspended for 28 hours. Asked about the use of such torture at Masanjia, one of the article’s inside informants explained that it was similar to the way a parent uses corporal punishment to force a child to submit: “This is related to a guard’s individual personality. Some see themselves as those who are in control, whose every action is correct. They do not have an understanding of those sent to RTL.”
Many of the petitioners interviewed used hunger strikes as a form of protest, but the response from authorities was nothing short of brutal. Hunger strikers were routinely placed on “death beds,” their bodies strapped down tightly while their mouths were wrenched open and feeding tubes forced down their throats. Confined this way for days, many of the women came away with permanent scars and broken and loosened teeth. In extreme cases, women subjected to these various treatments have developed serious mental illness and been forced to undergo radical treatments, including electroshock.
Seeking Redress on Shaky Ground
Whether describing inhuman treatment, exploitative working conditions, or the quality of food and sanitation, a recurring theme in the article is that the conditions at Masanjia fail to meet norms set forth in Chinese laws and regulations. This fact seems obvious even to those running the carceral institution, but despite such recognition, incarcerated women appear to have little recourse to protection.
An anonymous source quoted throughout the article repeatedly blames the system of “stability maintenance” for putting undue pressure on the RTL apparatus—in particular, for institutionalizing people who do not meet the criteria for confinement. “In the past, the people sent here were really bad types,” the informant explained. “Now, it’s vulnerable groups like petitioners or university students involved in pyramid schemes. I feel pity for them.” Because petitioners, in particular, tend not to acknowledge that they have violated any laws, “they don’t acknowledge guilt and they don’t work—this puts us in a difficult position.”
Procurators assigned to monitor conditions at the RTL facility are flooded with complaints, and they seem to investigate many. But gathering evidence can be difficult. The worst abuses often occur beyond the reaches of closed-circuit cameras, and potentially implicating footage is often erased. When investigators do find evidence of wrongdoing, it tends to be classified as a “disciplinary violation” for internal handling, rather than criminal prosecution. Given RTL’s shaky legal foundation, the basis for procuratorial oversight is unclear, and procurators at Masanjia seem reluctant to “take on the entire facility.” Since 2004, there has only been one criminal prosecution at Masanjia, when a guard was sentenced to 12 years in prison for assaulting an incarcerated woman, leaving her in a coma.
Some women have succeeded in getting their RTL decisions overturned through administrative litigation, but results are not guaranteed, even with clear evidence of violation. After one woman successfully had her RTL decision annulled, the Chaoyang RTL committee appealed, arguing: “Though there were flaws in the procedure [we] used . . . there was nothing inappropriate about the decision to send [her] to RTL. [The decision] was made in the interest of preserving overall stability and accords with the local law-enforcement realities of Chaoyang. Sending [her] to RTL benefits the preservation of social order and stability.”
The appeals court ultimately upheld the lower court’s decision to annul the RTL decision, a welcome rejection of the “stability above all else” mentality that has dominated China’s criminal justice system for too long. That type of mentality still has deep roots in China’s law enforcement institutions, but exposure of the many social costs associated with the overriding priority given to stability is leading the public to demand change. As Chinese authorities prepare to bring an end to RTL, and replace it with something new, these demands must be taken into account.