HONG KONG—A former official in northeastern China who was sent to labor camp after she organized a petition calling for the abolition of China's gulag, has renewed her call in a letter to China's leaders ahead of this year's annual parliamentary sessions in Beijing.
Liu Jie, former director of a state livestock farm under the jurisdiction of Heilongjiang's provincial general land reclamation bureau, was herself sent for "re-education through labor" by administrative sentence, which can be imposed for up to three years without trial, after signing the October 2007 petition along with 12,000 others.
Liu, 56, was released in April 2009 after serving 18 months in a labor camp in Qiqiha'er, where she was sent for "instigating trouble" and "disturbing social order."
"I know Liu Jie," said Beijing-based civil rights lawyer Li Heping. "She made several official complaints but with no result. She has been beaten, detained, and sent to labor camp."
Li said the entire gulag system was based on a State Council document titled Guidelines for Management of Re-education Through Labor, which allowed the police to send people to labor camp for up to three years, with the possibility of extension to four years.
"Currently, a huge proportion of people are being sent to labor camp," Li said. "But there has been some change in the system. That is to say, according to police sources, that sentences are getting shorter."
"Mostly, sentences are now no longer than two years."
Remnant of slavery
Li said the labor camp system was unconstitutional.
"It is also against certain legislation in China. It is a fundamentally illegal thing...The [State Council] guidelines are null and void, and therefore any detention under those guidelines is unlawful."
"It is also a remnant of a slavery system, which shouldn't exist in a socialist society," Li said.
U.S.-based rights activist Liu Nianchun called China's gulag system an unregulated tool of punishment used by officials according to their whims.
"China's political system is a rule of individuals, not a rule of law," Liu Nianchun said. "It suits those in power, because it means that what they say is law."
"The police don't have to worry about whether anyone disagrees with them. They can use this punishment with total freedom."
He said the authorities were unlikely to respond to Liu Jie's request.
"It won't be abolished," Liu Nianchun said. "There's a lot more freedom inside a labor camp than in a prison, and I've been to both."
"In a labor camp you can pretty much do what you want to the inmates."
Liu Jie's letter, addressed to top legislator Wu Bangguo and top political adviser Jia Qinglin, also called for an end to the detention and harassment of China's thousands of petitioners who seek redress for grievances against the government.
She called for funds to be directed instead toward resolving some of the petitioners' complaints by addressing their grievances and allegations of official wrongdoing.
'Keep trouble in the townships'
China's State Council announced its intention last month to close thousands of representative offices of county-level governments in Beijing after their implication in a series of corruption and expense-account scandals.
The official magazine Outlook Weekly said central authorities had ordered the closures to occur within six months.
Meanwhile, a top law enforcement official has called on Chinese local authorities to "keep trouble in the townships," referring to the tens of thousands of clashes that happen annually between protesters and the authorities around the country.
In a clear endorsement of recent crackdowns on petitioners seeking redress for grievances against the government at a higher level of authority, Zhou Yongkang said "conflict should not be handed up to a higher level."
The U.S.-based Laogai Research Foundation estimates at least 500,000 people are currently detained in China's labor camps, including both laogai, or "reform through labor" camps, and laojiao, or "re-education through labor."
The Chinese Ministry of Justice says 190,000 people are being "re-educated through labor."
The law permits non-judicial panels to sentence people without trial to three years in labor camps or other administrative detention programs, which can be extended by up to a year.
Original reporting in Mandarin by Yang Jiadai. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.