A survivor doubts China's plan to close labor camps

The World

Former Chinese political prisoner and leading human rights activist Harry Wu (C) makes a statement alongside U.S. Congressmen and fellow human rights groups in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington January 14, 2010.

REUTERS/Jason Reed

Harry Wu knows first-hand what life was like in China's labor camps. He was imprisoned for 19 years in 12 different camps. 

"In the early morning when the sun rises. We gathered together, escorted by the police. We go to the yard to labor in the fields," said Wu, describing life in the camps. "If we are in the coal mine, it's a 12-hour shift, 2 shifts a day, 365 days a year."

China's ruling Communist Party announced today that the country's much-criticized labor camps will be closed. The "re-education through labor" policy has been in place since the 1950's, when it was established to punish critics of the Communist Party.

The camps have operated outside the legal system — police were able to issue and set sentences with no judicial control.

Harry Wu was arrested at age 23. He had been a vocal critic of the Communist Party. 

"The first time in the camp in China is a terrible situation with starvation," said Wu. "So I lost weight. I weighed 80 pounds. Many people died."

Wu was released from his life sentence in 1979 at the age of 42, following the death of Mao Zeodong. He is now executive director of the Laogai Research Foundation in Washington. The foundation's aim is to raise public awareness of China's system of forced labor camps.

Wu expressed skepticism that the camps will actually close or that political prisoners will be released. "China is a Communist regime. As Communists, they need a repression system," said Wu. "If you disagree or are against the Community policy, you'll get sent to the labor camps."

The Communist Party announcement gave no date for bringing labor re-education to an end.

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