Inmates also recount frequent beatings with electric batons, being pricked with needles from the sewing machines inmates use to make paramilitary uniforms, and solitary confinement in dark cells.
In the wake of the Bo scandal, activists argued that the excessive use of labor camps by Wang Lijun, the former Chongqing police chief, underscored the need to end the entire Gulag system.
Since last May, Pu has helped secure the release of 21 inmates from camps in Chongqing. A typical case was that of Tian Hongyuan. In 2010, Tian suggested to property owners in an online forum that they bring a dispute with the developer of their compound to the attention of Xi Jinping, then vice president.
The police responded by interrogating and beating Tian, and sending him to a labor camp. His case was widely followed on the Chinese internet, as his background as a white-collar worker and property owner, and the unpolitical nature of his comments, helped many members of China’s middle class identify with him.
“The system has become local officials’ tool for personal revenge,” says Wang Gongyi.
The Communist party created laojiao in 1955 to control “counter-revolutionaries” – people whom it perceived as a threat but who could not be accused of any crime. The scope of the system was soon broadened to include anyone who fell out of favor during the party’s many political struggles.
After China initiated its market reforms in 1978, the camps’ focus changed to small offenders, including drug addicts and prostitutes. But as a growing income gap, official corruption and abuse of power swelled the ranks of the disaffected, the camps have been filling with people the party sees as a threat to its power.
Former inmates interviewed by the Financial Times say petitioners – people who complain to higher administrative levels about grievances the local government fails to address – formed the biggest group imprisoned in their camps. Between a quarter and half of the inmates were followers of Falun Gong, the outlawed sect, they added.
These numbers raise doubts about how far Beijing’s reform can go, given that party leader will still want to find a way to deal with such people.
“The question is what to do with these people?” says Wang. “When the troublemakers start flooding the streets, police will be under pressure again to maintain stability. They will think of new ways.”
For now, experts say the camps are gradually being transformed into drug rehabilitation centers. The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, China’s rubber stamp parliament, is this year expected to issue an opinion abolishing the regulation governing the camp – which is when the real work starts.
“After that, we will need a large-scale overhaul of our criminal code,” says Wang.
Whether that can really help usher in the rule of law in China remains to be seen.
“There is no other option,” says Pu. “We still have all the same problems we had 10 years ago. Hu Jintao’s ‘harmonious society’ is in a dead end.”
Additional reporting by Zhao Tianqi