Simply put, Teng Biao (滕彪) is one of the best known human rights lawyers and legal scholars in China. This is his preface to a memoir entitled “A Worthwhile Trip—A Documentation of Beijing Reeducation-through-Labor Dispatch Center”, in which he looks deep into what these camps do to inmates as human beings. It’s much worse than just turning them into cheap labor making Christmas gifts for the American market.
It’s inconceivable, in a modern society, to detain a citizen for up to three, even four, years based merely on police decisions without going through any proper judiciary procedure. But in present-day China, it is a vivid reality, and hundreds and thousands of Chinese citizens have fallen victims to it. That is since China’s re-education-through-labor system was implemented in 1957. More and more scholars, lawyers and citizens from all walks of life have been making strong demand to abolish it, while the international community has also been pressing China to end it by honoring a series of international human rights conventions that China has adopted. But until today, re-education-through-labor is still widely used. Re-education-through-labor camps detain not only petty criminals, but also drug addicts, prostitutes and clients of prostitutes, and people with mental illnesses. More and more, it has been used to persecute Falungong practitioners, petitioners and dissidents.
Like with most of the things in life, people often are satisfied with a general impression or prevailing description without a chance, or the willingness, to explore and study it in detail, especially the fate and the feelings of the people involved. On topics such as that of war, disaster, mass murder, imprisonment and torture, we tend to, intentionally or not, avoid its dark and bloody depth. But this is precisely what good writing does, especially documentary writing. It is an important addition to our routine experiences. We must face it all; we must not pretend these things have never happened.
The book in front of me, A Worthwhile Trip—A Documentation of Beijing Reeducation-through-Labor Dispatch Center, is a witness’ testimony of China’s re-education-through-labor system. It reveals the system to us, and at the same time, it also raises much larger issues about our political system, society and human nature. The author of the book is Ye Jinghuan (野靖环), a victim of “Xin Guo Da” futures fraud (新国大) in late 1990s involving former Prime Minister’s son. During eleven years of petitioning, she was repeatedly beaten by police, detained, arrested, and finally been given reeducation-through-labor. In the Reeducation-through-Labor Dispatch Center, she suffered various torture, sometimes on to the brink of breaking down. But she kept telling herself, “I can’t die, I can’t lose my mind, I must get out of here alive! I must tell everyone about the evils of re-education-through-labor, and I must tell it to posterity!” Because of her refusal to give in, the world is able to see the true face of re-education-through-labor. At the same time, writing is cathartic for the author; through it she is able to re-examine life and participate in reality constructively.
According to the author’s investigation, most petitioners among RTL detainees have been subjected to electric baton and confinement in the “little dark room”. Even though China adopted the UN Convention against Torture in 1988, torture is still widely used these days in detention centers, prisons and other incarceration venues, and a great number of citizens die of it, or are debilitated by it. Torture perpetrated in RTL camps is extremely cruel; brutalities against Falungong practitioners are beyond imagination and continue to be perpetrated. The persecution of Falungong has long marked the nadir of human civilization, and constitutes, without a doubt, crimes against humanity. But internationally and domestically, only a few are willing, or would dare, to condemn it. For intellectuals and politicians, it is an irony and a shame that will only grow as time moves on.
The “characteristics” of Chinese prisons lie in that “law enforcers humiliate and abuse prisoners as a part of the system,” said Wang Lixiong when commenting on Liao Yiwu’s Testimony. A Worthwhile Trip is less about physical abuses than the routine “teaching” in the camp that abuses and tortures the “RTLers” mentally. Many of its rules and informal requirements are designed to humiliate people so as to destroy their basic dignities as human beings. For example, “Head must be lowered when walking in hallways, lining up, speaking to police officers. Standard head-lowering is to look at the tip of your toes.” For another example, no going to restroom is allowed except at designated times. “Shoes, tooth brush and other objects must be displayed in a straight line; no compromise is tolerated.” If you wash your neck when you wash your face, watchers will call you out immediately, “Who said you can wash your neck? Wash your face only, no washing anywhere else!” To receive your meal at meal times, male RTLers must kneel on one knee with both hands holding up the bowl. Damp clothes cannot be dried over bedframes or chairs even during the night. No looking out the windows. RTLers must address each other by names; calling someone “Aunt” or “Sister” will result in point reduction for behavior. Such requirements are ubiquitous. The first day in the Center the cadre said, addressing to the newcomers, “To put it simply, don’t think you are a human being.” While urging the RTLers to forget about what it means to be a human, the administration officers indeed carried out that advice. Some RTLers summarized the methods as “Strike down your self-esteem; destroy your soul; humiliate your dignity; and weaken your health.” Obviously, these methods are not meant to “educate and reshape” but to degrade.
Along with physical “disciplines” are remake of the mind. For any little error that’s been discovered, you have to repent in writing. Those who are disobedient or unwilling to give up their beliefs are subjected to a form of solitary confinement, Bao Jia (包夹, wrap and sandwich) where two or more RTLers are used to punish a particular RTLer by sandwiching him or her 24 hours a day so that he or she will have no freedom whatsoever to move or talk. Other punishments include reducing his or her points, denying family visits, extending or threatening to extend, his or her sentences. Bao Jia seems to be a unique Chinese invention. According to the rules, the sandwiching RTLers must stay less than 10cm away from the sandwiched RTLer, and they are required to keep detailed record of every utterance, every movement, and any mood changes of the RTLer. Even his or her sleep has to be described too.
One time, Ye Jinghuan was upbraided for having “too relaxed expressions” that the lieutenant noticed from surveillance cameras. Along with microphones and small speakers, they readily remind us of the screens and the Big Brother in 1984. In the camp, the more you appear strong, composed and humane, the more they hate you. Those who are degraded to the level of a worm or an insect submitting to the apparatus or becoming its helpers are the ones who please the camp keepers the most.
The book tells a story: Lu Jing (卢静) and Ye Jinghuan were roommates and became good friends. Lu called Ye mom, and this is how Ye describes the young girl: “She was always sunny, full of joy. She was so uplifting to me. I liked her very much.” But having been assigned to sandwich Ye Jinghuan for a while, one day, she suddenly broke down. She said, crying, “Lieutenant Yuan said everybody was reporting to her that I had never upbraided you; and that I often talked to you, and I let you use bathroom and wash your hands when I was on duty. She knows everything. She said if I wanted to reduce my sentence, I must change my attitude toward you. She said she knows our relationship in Haidian Detention Center, and that’s why she has put it up for so long. But not anymore! Ye Jinghuan, from now on, I have to watch you the way the lieutenant requires of me; or I will have no hope.” The author said, “Lu Jing, do what you want to do; don’t think about me.” Lu Jing said, “The lieutenant requires me to scold you every day, I can’t do it because of our friendship in Haidian Detention Center. But I have no choice. If I don’t pick on you, they will pick on me. In the end, I will be given the sandwich treatment just like you. If I am like you, upbraided and dressed down every day, I won’t be able to live. So I am going to protect myself first. I have been in prison for four years and I have never felt so terrible. It’s only been four months here, and I can’t take it anymore.”