Re-education camps may close, but stigma endures
Those released from administrative punishment system continue to be seen as troublemakers, preventing them from rebuilding their lives
For Ren Jianyu and others released from labour camps, the Communist Party's decision last week to abolish its notorious "re-education through labour" system provides little comfort.
They are relieved to know others may be spared the pain of being sent to a labour camp without trial, but worry the move will do little to help them rebuild their own lives.
"The municipal government still thinks people like me are the major targets of 'stability maintenance'," said Ren, referring to the state security system to counter dissent and unrest. "Most of our lives have been ripped apart by our time in the camps."
Before August 2011, Ren was a university graduate with a stable job as a village official in Chongqing . He had a good relationship with his high school sweetheart, a local teacher.
His friends were shocked when Ren was suddenly labelled a "subversive" and carted off to a labour camp for posting microblog comments 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 quote from 18th century American revolutionary, Patrick Henry: "Give me liberty or give me death."
Ren was held in the labour camp until last November, one of tens of thousands of mainlanders sent to re-education through labour, or laojiao. The system began under Mao Zedong in the 1950s to purge "counter-revolutionaries" and "class enemies" and evolved into an expedient way to get rid of petty criminals, dissidents, practitioners of unauthorised religions and other perceived troublemakers.
A 2009 UN Human Rights Council report estimated that there were 190,000 people held in 320 labour camps across the country.
During his tenure as Chongqing party secretary, disgraced former Politburo member Bo Xilai routinely used the camps as a tool to consolidate his control over the city.
But people like Ren have continued to suffer even after authorities admitted their punishments were a mistake.
"I was optimistic when I got out, so I didn't really have time to think about my future," said Ren, 26, in a hot-pot restaurant in Yongchuan district, where he grew up.
But life after his release was not easy. The village government refused to give him his old post back. Then more job applications were turned down.
"I was told that I was too 'sensitive' to be hired," he said, using a common label for political dissidents.
Meanwhile, local authorities went repeatedly to Ren's girlfriend's school, suggesting that she break up with him. Police told his neighbours he was a criminal.
He remains under police surveillance and believes his mobile phone is being 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 an online store earlier this year to sell local souvenirs, but the business is not going well.
For others, like Tian Hongyuan , a former stock analyst, the labour camp experience has meant rethinking much of what they thought he knew.
"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 was true," said Tian, 31.
He 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. He was arrested two days later, when Xi actually did visit.
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 a half in the camp, and received about 25,000 yuan (HK$31,600) in compensation after authorities admitted his detention was a mistake.
His fiancée broke up with him months after he was sent to the camp. His parents also fell ill.
"I could have had a prosperous life," he said. "I would be a father by now, if I had married my ex-girlfriend.
"Most of us have been taught from a young age to love the party and the country, that they are larger than anything else. Now I just don't think so."
Tian said it was good that the system was being dismantled, but his life was still in tatters. "I still can't find a job, and feel unsure about everything," he said.
Some, like Huang Chengcheng , 31, are sceptical the government is ready to change its ways. The grocery store owner spent two years in a labour camp for posting an online comment urging friends to gather and "drink jasmine tea", which was seen as a reference to the Arab spring.
"Abolishing re-education through labour is nothing but a racket," Huang said. "The government will replace it with other forms of administrative detention to maintain stability."