'Petition mother' Tang Hui's determined fight for justice over daughter's rape
Tang Hui, whose daughter was kidnapped, raped and sold to a brothel six years ago, should be bitter but is calmly resolute in her fight for justice
Tang Hui appears calm yet preoccupied a week after losing a court fight for compensation from local officials who sent her to a labour camp. Without a trace of bitterness, she goes about her daily routine: cooking rice for breakfast, running her flower shop and preparing paperwork for an appeal.
"I will appeal. I did nothing wrong to deserve being sent to a labour camp," she told the South China Morning Post. "I wish the 're-education through labour' system would be abolished, or other innocent people will become victims, like me."
The diminutive 40-year-old is fighting a lonely and difficult campaign to demand compensation from government officials who put her in a labour camp for nine days in August.
Tang is famous. She became known as the "petition mother" for her desperate and tireless visits to government authorities to demand justice for her daughter. Seven years ago, seven men abducted, raped and sold her only daughter, then 11 years old, to a local underground brothel. She was kept there for three months.
Lingling, where Tang lives, is the largest district of Yongzhou city, more than 300 kilometres south of Changsha, the capital of Hunan province. With a population of 610,000, Lingling struggles with poverty and is underdeveloped economically. Shabby shops line narrow streets in its old town. At night, red and yellow neon lights advertise sex shops. Fliers featuring call girls are scattered around hotels.
Tang's life used to be peaceful. Her family ran a small restaurant near a nursing school. Then her daughter went missing at the beginning of October 2006.
Tang said she went to search for her daughter herself after police efforts failed. Nearly three months later, she spotted the underground brothel where her daughter was held. But when she called one district police officer, he declined to help. Tang eventually called the emergency number 110 several times, and police responders helped her save her daughter. When she asked that the kidnappers be arrested, the local police office did not immediately file the case or conduct further investigations.
That is how Tang began a long process of petitioning for justice, first at the provincial level, then in Beijing. Slowly, local authorities started to act. In June last year, her daughter's two main kidnappers were sentenced to death, four accomplices received life sentences and one was jailed for 15 years.
But Tang wants more.
"I know it is impossible to sentence all of them to death. But my daughter's life is ruined, and I want the criminals to die. I'm afraid they might harm more people if they are out there," she said.
"It is normal for a victim's mother to wish for the severest punishment on the criminals. It would be abnormal to do otherwise," she added. "The law cannot control my heart, while my heart cannot change the law."
Tang's daughter was diagnosed with herpes, an incurable sexually transmitted disease, and she also suffers from psychological trauma. After seeking medical care to stabilise her daughter's condition, Tang sent her to a boarding school under the close supervision of a relative.
"It's better for her to be far away from the nightmare here. But I have to stay in Yongzhou to watch the final judgment of the court proceedings," she said. "I phone her every day and try to visit her once a month."
At home, Tang still keeps her daughter's room the way she left it. Amid the blackened walls and cracked wooden furniture, the room is the brightest in the house because of its natural lighting. White sheets with pink roses remain untouched on a double bed. Hanging on the wall, a large picture features two chunky infants with large eyes and cute smiles.
Across the room, the words on two ink paintings read: "Sorrow has frozen in fleeting time." Tang said her daughter, now 17, wrote the phrase during a visit last year.
Tang said her daughter had become very quiet since the kidnapping. At the boarding school, she has made a few friends among the girls, but she stays away from all of the boys. Once, Tang received a call from a teacher when her daughter was heard singing loudly in the middle of the night. The teenager had told her mother that she had to sing because she felt oppressed.
"Singing is the only hobby she has kept from before [the kidnapping]. Her favourite song is Invisible Wings," said Tang with a smile, referring to a pop song by Zhang Shaohan.
The song's lyrics go:
Every time I wander in loneliness I become stronger. Every time I'm deeply hurt, I hold back my glimmering tears. Because I know I will always have a pair of invisible wings. They let me fly, passing despair.
The determined Tang continues to campaign for death sentences for the other five kidnappers despite her spell in a labour camp. Tang was sentenced to 18 months of re-education at the Zhuzhou Baimalong labour camp, about two hours by bus north of her hometown. The reason given was that her protests "seriously disturbed the social order and exerted a negative impact on society", Xinhua reported.
"Citizens have the right to petition," Tang said. She said she had petitioned more than two dozen times in Beijing and about twice as many times in Hunan. But authorities in her hometown follow strict petition evaluation rules to reduce the number of cases that go forward.
Tang remembers her first day in the labour camp; it was August 2, last year. The staff forcefully cut her hair short. "I used to have long black hair," she recalls with anger. "Then they asked me to recite the di zi gui [Standards for Being a Good Student and Child]. I just could not do it."
Di zi gui, started by a Qing dynasty educator, uses outlines from the Analects of Confucius to teach people to respect their parents, love their siblings, care for all people and to become a trustworthy person. Tang said she failed to identify with the standards because her heart was elsewhere. "I was worried about my daughter. And I am not a bad person. I respect my parents and others," she said.
Two lawyers representing Tang sparked a public outcry after they exposed her story on microblogs. Hundreds of thousands of Weibo users called for Tang's release and demanded that authorities stop their unfair treatment of her.
"Without my lawyers and the public's efforts, I would not have been released so soon," she said. "I felt hopelessness in those nine days under detention. It felt as long as nine centuries because I thought I was alone. I had no idea there were so many people supporting me outside."
China imported the re-education through labour or labour camp system from the Soviet Union and passed related laws on August 1, 1957. The camps were established to detain inmates, force them to do penal labour and re-educate criminals without going through a formal trial. Detention periods vary from one year to as many as four years. In the Cultural Revolution, many state leaders, including Deng Xiaoping , were put into labour camps during purges.
Hundreds of labour camps still exist today, mostly housing political prisoners and dissidents. Inmates can appeal, but rarely succeed. In December, Chongqing municipality rejected an appeal from 25-year-old Ren Jianyu, who was re-educated at a labour camp for a year until November for spreading "negative information" online and "inciting subversion of state power".
But talk of labour-camp reform has surfaced lately. Xinhua reported in January that China planned to reform its "controversial re-education through labour system". So far, there is no indication when changes may come.
"When you hold different opinions, they will find whatever excuses necessary to put you into a labour camp," Tang said.
"Only because I have experienced it, I know how painful the experience is to a person. I'm just a mother who wants justice for my daughter."
Tang is now preparing to appeal after her administrative lawsuit was rejected in Yongzhou Intermediate People's Court. She is seeking about 1,500 yuan (HK$1,800) for infringement of her freedom, 1,000 yuan for moral damages and a written apology from the Yongzhou re-education committee.
"We are appealing within 10 days. We may not win … however, the public can see which side is just and can demand that the re-education system be halted," he said.
The lawyer said Tang used to be an ordinary mother, but her daughter's tragedy and the injustice of her case have pushed her into the spotlight as a bold petitioner.
"I hope she will not get stuck in the system. At some point, she should stop petitioning and start a normal life with her family," he said.
Tang believes in her innocence, as there is no evidence that the Yongzhou re-education committee can prove she disturbed the social order. Tang is also awaiting the final judgment on her daughter's case. She plans to move away with her family to start a new life when the trials are all over.
"But I have one regret in my heart," she said. "I failed to warn my daughter that there are bad people out there."