For Ren Jianyu and others like him, the abolition of the notorious system of re-education through labour, or laojiao, is no cause for celebration.
As the country welcomed the end of the half-century-old system announced by leaders as the Communist Party’s third plenum wrapped in Beijing last week, there was little joy for many victims still rebuilding their lives.
“The municipal government still thinks people like me are the major targets of ‘stability maintenance’,” said Ren, a labour camp victim from Chongqing who is now an online retailer, referring to the state internal security system to counter dissent and civil unrest.
“Most of our lives have been ripped apart by our time in the camps,” Ren said.
To their friends, 26-year-old Ren and his girlfriend were high school sweethearts who developed committed relationship. Both graduated from university and had stable jobs – Ren as a village official and his girlfriend a school teacher. So when their lives exploded on August 18, 2011, no one could quite believe it.
On that summer day, Ren was sent without trial to a Chongqing labour camp for posting “subversive” microblog comments including on about “dedicating” himself to “the realisation of democracy”. Police found him guilty based on the evidence of a T-shirt found in his closet with a slogan coined by the 18th century American “founding father” Patrick Henry: “Give me liberty or give me death.”
Ren was detained in the labour camp until last November, one of tens of thousands of victims punished under laojiao, which evolved from a system to purge “counter-revolutionaries” and “class enemies” in the 1950s to an expedient way to punish today’s petty criminals, cult members and government critics.
A UN Human Rights Council report from 2009 estimated that there were 190,000 inmates locked up in 320 re-education-through-labour centres across the country.
“I was optimistic when I got out … so I didn’t really have time to think about my future,” Ren said in a hot-pot restaurant in his hometown, Yongchuan district in Chongqing.
But life after his release was not easy. First, the village government refused to give his old post back. Then more job applications were turned down.
“I was told that I was too sensitive to be hired,” he said. A “sensitive” person in China is a euphemism for a political dissident.
Meanwhile, local authorities went many times to the school where his girlfriend taught, suggesting to her that she should break up with Ren. Police told his neighbours that Ren, a skinny and plain young man, was a “criminal”, despite the labour camp administrators admitting that Ren’s punishment had been a mistake.
Since his release, he has been constantly watched by local police, and his cellphone monitored.
“They still believe I can bring instability to society and want to isolate me,” Ren said. “I just want a peaceful life.”
He opened his online store earlier this year to sell local souvenirs, but the business is not doing well.
For many, their labour camp experience means rethinking many of the things they had been taught.
“I was told at school that our country is ruled by law, but when I was beaten by the police, I started to wonder if that is true,” said Tian Hongyuan, a 31-year-old former stock analyst in Chongqing who was sent to a labour camp for two years in 2010 for joking in an online chat group that then vice-president Xi Jinping was due to visit the city.
Tian wrote the post on December 4 and was arrested two days later – when Xi actually did visit the city. Police grilled him about the source of his information. He was strapped to a chair and tortured for nearly three days, kicked and punched by guards and denied sleep and water.
“Certain things have deeply affected our mental state,” Tian said. He was released after a year and half in the camp, and received about 25,000 yuan in compensation after authorities admitted his detention, like Ren’s, was a mistake.
Like Ren, Tian was a good student in school, regarded as an outstanding colleague at work and was good to his parents. Before he was detained, he was preparing to get married.
“I could have had a prosperous life,” he said. “I would be a father by now if I married my ex-girlfriend.”
But his fiancée broke up with him months after he was sent to the camp. His parents also fell sick. For Tian, his positive vision of the country was shattered.
“Most of us have been taught from a young age to love the party and the country, that they are larger than anything else,” he said. “Now I just don’t think so.”
While Tian said it was good that laojiao had been relegated to history, his life was still in tatters.
“I still can’t find a job, and feel unsure about everything,” he said.
Tian has to fake his resume, in which he said he has been working for the same company over the past few years even during the time he was in the labour camp.
“I have to do this, otherwise I will never find a job despite being vindicated in court,” he said. “It’s a period of time I want to forget.”
“I have already become an enemy of the state. The authorities told my friends and my relatives that I’m a bad person,” said Huang Chengcheng, a 30-year-old grocery store owner who was sent to labour camp for two years for publishing a provocative comment online.
“Abolishing re-education through labour is nothing but a racket. The government would replace it with other forms of administrative detention to maintain stability,” he said.
A Chongqing court has ordered the government to pay Huang 134,000 yuan in compensation for “mishandling” his case, which stemmed from a 2011 internet posting in which Huang urged his friends to gather and “drink jasmine tea”.
Huang said he intended the comment – a reference to the “jasmine” uprisings then sweeping the Arab world – to be a joke.
“Detention did not scare me, but it changed me,” said Huang, adding he was now determined to collect the names and stories of Chongqing labour camp victims to create an archive of their cases.