Xie Yihui

Films document horror of labour camps 50 years ago and today

One tells of starving children slaving in Sichuan forest, the other of women's modern-day torture

When Xie Yihui read about the deaths of many children in a Sichuan "re-education through labour" camp in the early 1960s, she was horrified.

She had been reading an account by Zeng Boyan, a retired journalist and former camp inmate, who wrote of his disbelief in 1958 when he saw about 200 children as young as 10 from the Dabao labour camp working in a forest near the Shaping state-run farm, where he was held as a "rightist".

Years later, a witness who helped bury dead children told him that some 2,600 children from Dabao had died mostly of starvation between 1960 and 1962. Xie said the government had never released the number of deaths at the camp.

They [child labourers] lived like ghosts … and there was no love and warmth in their lives

Moved by the piece, Xie decided to interview Zeng and two dozen former child labourers. Her work resulted in the documentary , being premiered today in Hong Kong's 1908 bookshop and Taipei's Cafe Philo as well as on the internet.

Xie was struck by what Zeng told her: "I could almost see this image in my head; several hundred little children labouring in the forest and chased by a supervisor with a whip."

Juvenile labour and education centres were set up across the mainland in the late 1950s, based on the Soviet model where delinquents and street children were sent for reform.

Witnesses said 5,000 to 6,000 children aged from nine upwards were sent to Dabao from late 1957 until its closure in 1962.

Some were young offenders convicted of petty crimes, but many were sent by impoverished parents who believed that their children would fare better in an institution where they were promised food and education. But the children soon found out that food was scarce and lessons lasted only a few months.

Former child labourers, now mostly in their 60s, said they were forced to do hard labour such as transporting wood, clearing land and planting crops. Against the backdrop of the Great Famine (1958-1961), the hungry children ate anything they could find: earthworms, mice and poisonous plants. Many suffered from malnutrition, while others contracted fatal parasitic infections.

"They [child labourers] lived like ghosts … and there was no love and warmth in their lives," Xie said.

The re-education-through- labour system - introduced in 1955 and known as - survives to this day.

, also to be premiered today, depicts the cruelty and torture in a present-day women's labour camp as told by recently released inmates. Masanjia, in Liaoning province, is one of more than 300 labour camps on the mainland where police can imprison people for up to four years without trial, a practice condemned by critics as arbitrary and unconstitutional.

"Re-education through labour is the most evil system on earth ... and the Masanjia female camp is the most evil camp on earth," former inmate Liu Hua , released in October, says at the start of the film. "There, we were made slaves and hostages of this evil system."

Liu and a dozen other interviewees told director Du Bin of the severe torture they endured, from beatings and being suspended by their limbs for hours, to having toothbrushes and electric batons shoved into their vaginas. Liu's story was first smuggled out of the camp by another inmate who hid diary notes in her vagina in 2011.

The mainland's magazine reported abuses at Masanjia last month. It did not detail the most brutal treatment, described in Du's documentary.

Critics have been calling for the scrapping of the system for years and in January, Meng Jianzhu , the Communist Party's top legal official, hinted the government would reform the system this year. However, no details have emerged.

Du and Xie said last week that they hoped their documentaries would speed up the ending of . "At the camp, they don't treat people like humans," said Du, a freelance photographer for . "All I want to say is that they are humans, not animals and they can't humiliate people like that."

Xie said she hoped mainland Chinese officials can see her film, "so they could see what consequence those regulations can have on ordinary people."

"Laojiao… is still causing people immense physical pain," she said.

Activist Zeng Jinyan, who organised the internet screening of the two films, has urged supporters to pay 30 yuan each to financially support the directors. She said by becoming "co-producers", people could become part of the social force to end laojiao.


This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Films document labour camp hell then and now