China's Microbloggers Take On Re-Education Camps

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”
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Over the last two years, as China’s microblogging culture has expanded, observers inside and outside the country have found hopeful signs that the Communist Party is starting to respect and respond to public opinion voiced online. The most notable case comes from the town of Wukan, where, in December, villagers staged anti-corruption protests that quickly developed a national and supportive online constituency. The Party responded with elections for new local leaders.

Do these recent, allegedly populist, inclinations indicate a government more willing to shape policy to fit public opinion? Or are they just savvy public relations ploys designed to satiate angry online masses? The limits of what China's Web activists can accomplish became clear this week, when outrage erupted over the mother of a kidnap victim's political detention in China's notorious re-education through labor system.

The re-education through labor system dates to the mid-1950s, when it provided local law enforcement with the right to sentence political dissenters without judicial review. In the subsequent decades, the 1957 law that institutionalized the practice has been modified and expanded such that it’s mostly applied to petty criminals like thieves and prostitutes, as well as to petitioners and other political irritants. On Monday, Du Jian, a popular social-media marketing expert in Beijing, tweeted a (now-deleted) explanation of the system to Sina Weibo, China’s most popular microblog:

They don’t use judicial procedures; if they use them, it’s just a perfunctory. The bad points of the system are: underage youths and political petitioners are among the majority of the persecuted and the environment of re-education through labor is very bad ....

The maximum sentence under the system is four years of often brutal forced labor (ranging from farm to assembly-line work) supplemented by the occasional bit of coercive political indoctrination. Statistics vary on the size of the system, but according to the Bureau of Re-Education Through Labor Administration, in 2008, 350 facilities nationwide held 160,000 inmates.

The last five years have brought several high-profile calls to abolish the system. Some critics cite incompatibility with the Chinese constitution and international law. Others highlight that an unpopular and randomly implemented law enforcement system -- as a practical matter -- just isn’t a good way to maintain long-term social stability.

The controversial detention case that set off this most recent re-education conversation -- the first in the microblog era -- dates back to October 2006 in Yongzhou, a mid-sized city in Hunan province. There, seven men abducted and raped an 11-year-old girl and forced her into prostitution. She was rescued that December, thanks to a campaign initiated by her mother, Tang Hui. On June 5, after a protracted prosecution, two men received death sentences and five others received lengthy prison sentences.

Tang Hui had demanded death for all seven culprits, and when she learned that her call for justice wouldn't be fulfilled, she undertook a series of protests -- including sleeping in a Yongzhou courtroom for 15 nights. Tang's demonstration so irritated the Yongzhou government that on Aug. 2 she was sentenced to 18 months of re-education through labor.

Online outrage at the pettiness of the decision was instant and fierce, generating millions of microblog posts and several newspaper editorials. That wasn’t altogether surprising: Individual injustices suffered at the hands of corrupt local governments are staples of China’s online conversations. Rarely, however, do those discussions evolve into serious calls for policy changes.

In the wake of Tang’s detention, that’s precisely what happened. Some of China’s most prominent newspapers and microbloggers began calling for the abolition of the system under which Tang was sentenced. Many connected her plight to that of the Chinese people in general. An Aug. 6 tweet to Sina Weibo by writer Murong Xuecun has been retweeted more than 8,000 times over the past week:

Tang Hui’s case reveals to us the barbarous manners and the inhumanity and ineffectiveness of the law enforcement agencies ... If you offend local officials you will be thrown into prison without trial or evidence. Over the last 45 years there have been millions of victims, and it will cause suffering in the future, too. Without the abolition of re-education through labor, the citizens will know no safety.

The most unexpected of these anti-re-education tweets came from the official Sina Weibo account registered to People’s Daily, the flagship newspaper and mouthpiece of the Communist Party. The tweet references a widely-mocked government benchmark for assessing the progress of China’s revival since the early 1980s :

Experts recently announced that the Chinese nation is 62 percent revived according to a three-part benchmark used to assess "The Program for the Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation.” However, this number pales beside the news that the mother of the Hunan Yongzhou rape victim has been sentenced to re-education through labor for petitioning. A nation’s strength shouldn't just be measured by GDP or Olympic gold medals. A complex mathematical model such as that one should also account for the rights and dignity of the common people and the overall fairness of society.

The tweet mysteriously disappeared from and subsequently reappeared on the People's Daily Sina Weibo timeline. As of Tuesday, it had been retweeted more than 134,000 times and generated nearly 43,000 comments, most of them supportive. Meanwhile, on Monday, abolishing re-education through labor became a trending topic on Sina Weibo, with opinion tilted almost universally in favor of getting rid of the system. By Tuesday night, one online poll showed 97.1 percent of over 12,000 respondents favoring “immediate abolition.”

But could online opinion really change the re-education system? China’s newspaper editorialists are skeptical. Zhang Fen, writing Monday in the popular Beijing Evening News, is downright cynical about whether China’s public security officials are willing to take away the quickest and dirtiest means of suppressing dissent when it arises: “On a practical level, many officials, especially the local officials, desire to keep this system because it limits citizens' personal freedom over the long term and doesn’t require strict legal procedures.”

On Friday, a provincial-level body ordered that Tang Hui be released from her labor camp so that she could be “re-educated without detention,” as reported by the Global Times newspaper. It was a victory for Tang and those who believed she’d been wronged. Despite the outpouring of support that undoubtedly ensured her liberation, and the national debate over re-education, no official voice -- not even People’s Daily and its microblogging account -- has gone so far as to suggest generalizing her experience to the thousands of detainees currently held in re-education through labor camps. Until that happens, Tang Hui will serve as little more than a heart-warming example of how China’s Communist Party has developed a strategy for handling China’s online temper tantrums.

(Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is writing a book on the global recycling industry. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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Adam Minter at