No case reveals the twisted nature of China’s legal system better than that of Tang Hui, 39, a mother who has spent the last seven years trying to make the men who kidnapped, raped and prostituted her then 11-year-old daughter pay for their crimes. But instead of receiving official support, last week, Yang was sentenced—without trial—to one and a half years in a “reeducation through labor” camp for protesting against what she felt were lenient sentences for the criminals.
The details of Yang’s punishment went viral on Chinese social media sites last week and outrage soared. But the local police issued a statement declaring that she deserved her sentence because of her protests, which occurred seven times in the last year. Her crime? In defiance of Chinese laws prohibiting protests, Yang “blocked cars and the entrances of the buildings and shouted out loud" read the police statement, which “seriously disturbed social order” and “caused extremely bad social influences.”
China’s state-run media often champions the rule of law, but as Yang’s case makes clear, all too often the victims are the ones who are criminalized by the state for demanding real justice, said Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based senior researcher for Human Rights Watch. “The police have a very expedient system for making people they consider troublesome disappear without any kind of due process,” he said.
As China watched the murder trial begin for Gu Kailai, the prominent wife of fallen princeling Bo Xilai, who is charged with the fatal poisoning of a British citizen, the Communist Party has unleashed a torrent of propaganda promising righteous vengeance as a way to legitimizea its legal system. But the saga of Yang and her daughter belie those claims.
The case reads like a horror movie. According to Chinese media reports, Yang’s daughter , Lele was kidnapped in 2006 by human traffickers, who sold her to a local nightclub where she was sold for sex more than 100 times and frequently beaten. The terrified child, who was told that her family would be killed if she refused to sexually perform, was trapped at the club for three months. Desperate to find her missing daughter, Tang posted photos of her across the city. One caught the eye of a customer at the club, who called to report where the girl was.
Chinese police are notorious for turning their backs on brutal crimes. “The system is designed to allow the police to refuse to investigate manifest cases of abuses and rights violations against individual citizens,” said Bequelin. “Police tend not to accept and investigate cases if the crime will reflect poorly on them, so they tend to bury these cases, especially if the person has no wealth or power. When it’s little people, the police seem to be much less willing to devote resources, no matter how grievous the crime.”
True to form, the authorities did nothing to help Tang until she begged them a second time to rescue her daughter, according to The Shanghai Daily.
In June, a judge sentenced the men charged with Lele’s rape and kidnapping: two received the death penalty, four received life in prison, and another was sentenced to 15 years behind bars. But one of the men, Qin Xing, requested that his death sentence be commuted after the police claimed he helped stop a woman in jail from killing herself. Tang launched her protest after the police lent support to Xing’s calls for leniency. But what Tang and others suspect really prompted the police department’s support is that one of Xing’s relatives is a local police officer.
The whole fiasco has been met with widespread disgust among Chinese Internet users, and with widespread callousness among the police, who actually seem to believe throwing this woman into a labor camp is fair.
China’s “reeducation through labor” gulags are a beloved Communist Party holdover from the early days of the People’s Republic, dating to when the system was created in 1957. Those unfortunate enough to experience this extra-legal form of punishment—Human Rights Watch estimates that millions of people have suffered within its walls—are forced to perform manual labor and undergo “ideological education,” a Soviet-inspired remedy for “criminals” who apparently didn’t get the memo about how to be a model citizen.
Tang’s case has reignited calls by Chinese intellectuals and the public to abolish the reeducation through labor system. A survey on China’s most popular microblog found that 97 percent of respondents support ending the practice.
Perhaps to generate public support, the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party, The People’s Daily, issued a statement on its microblog saying, “A country’s greatness cannot be solely supported by GDP and Olympic gold medals, but should encompass people’s rights and dignity, social fairness and justice. Let’s make that effort together.”
And yet, the reality behind the propaganda tells another story. According to Human Rights Watch, there are an estimated 280 labor camps in China, imprisoning 300,000 people, often for “disturbing public order.”
Still, the viral outrage has prompted an investigation into the Tongzhou police for falsifying evidence, though the public remains suspicious, and despondent. “You put her into labor camp for disrupting social order, but you are the ones disrupting social order,” wrote a popular blogger in a widely-forwarded post.“ Your social order is an evil order. Release her!”
Ultimately, the public outcry about Tang appears to stem not just from her individual circumstances, but also from a sense that anyone could find himself or herself caught in the jaw of Chinese justice. Murong Xuecun, an outspoken Chinese writer, gave voice to this fear recently on his microblog, saying that Tang Hui’s case reveals both the inhumane nature of the Chinese police state, and the cruel, dark side of reeducation through labor.
“Thousands of people have died this way for the past 45 years, and the reeducation labor camp will continue to bring suffering and pain,” he wrote. “This is not only a risk that Tang Hui is facing, it is also a risk to all citizens. The citizens can never be safe until the day that the labor camp system is abolished.”