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Tackling a Wall of Lies  – Profile of Pu Zhiqiang, a Chinese Human Rights Lawyer

By Albertine Ren, published: September 14, 2014

It’s been three months since Pu Zhiqiang’s formal arrest on June 13. An extension of investigation period expired on September 13 without indictment or change of detention status, a blatant disregard for criminal procedure prescribed by the Chinese law. Such is the judicial randomness in China. — The editor


Pu Zhiqiang (浦志强). Photo from online.

Pu Zhiqiang (浦志强). Photo from online.

He favors navy suits and towers over everyone else at 6’2”. Farmers fall on their knees when they see him, hoping he can save their land or their child. Certainly, with a Mount Rushmore chin and the looks of leading men from a Communist propaganda film, he could have been custom-ordered from some fortune-teller manual on how to spot successful guys. The effect only falls apart when he smiles, dimpling in a way many consider unbecoming to traditional notions of masculinity.

Pu Zhiqiang is a lawyer in China and at the cutting edge of his fledgling profession. Back in the 1950’s, China did away with lawyers altogether to usher in the proletarian dictatorship. How far this set things back with regard to rule of law becomes clear in startling ways. In 2012, after a mother was sent to a labor camp for seeking the death penalty on some men who raped and prostituted her eleven-year-old daughter, Pu agreed to take her case, despite the powerful customers who favored the labor camp system. For example, the princeling Bo Xilai, fallen rival to President Xi Jinping, used it to his liking when he was mayor of Chongqing from 2007 to 2012. People who posted criticism of government policies and abuses on the Internet were thrown in for-profit gulags to churn out stuffed animals for MacDonald’s. Such cases usually go nowhere, since the courts are rigged and the press gagged.

In an environment where lawyers are expected to be hood ornaments, Pu steered the hairbreadth curves with a combination of luck and cool-headed calculation. He took on landmark cases without being branded a dissident, managing a good distance between himself and the edge of the cliff over which human rights activists teeter. Unlike disbarred or tortured human rights lawyers such as Tang Jitian (唐吉田) and Gao Zhisheng (高智晟), he was left free to practice. High-yield cases of low political sensitivity featuring multimillionaire businessmen tortured for skipping bribes would flock to him. They helped him round out his story when the secret police came knocking, questioning his involvement in other high-profile human rights cases.

“I always tell them it’s to get famous. If I say it’s because I believe in a just legal system, they’d tell me to shove my drivel, they know I’m in it for me. So I always tell them from the get-go I do these cases to get famous,” Pu told a fashion magazine, Trends, in 2012. Or he would play up the profit motive: “I’d tell the pandas (aka the secret police) I’m borderline bankrupt, and I don’t have it in me to let this big fat sweet deal go.” His levity is telling. The hidden reserves, within Chinese society, of idealism and yearning for a more just society go a considerable way to explain his booming business. Precisely because the authorities are vigilant for any untoward sign of altruism, it becomes the surest way to overcome mutual suspicion and dread and bring people together.

Backbone and street creds notwithstanding, Pu often found himself caught between a rock and a hard place. In response to one anonymous cell call of the “Luca Brasi is sleeping with the fishes” variety, Pu sent an airy tweet to his tens of thousands of fans on social media: “You’re welcome to come for a thigh or an arm off of Yours Truly, I am on standby.” Unscrupulous government officials whom it was not always easy to tell apart from the mafia represented another source of worry. In February 2012, for example, finding that the court authorities in a Henan town may be concocting a scheme to accuse him of “tampering with witnesses,” Pu again appealed to social media. Still, everything is relative: next to colleagues beaten up for going to court and, in Gao’s case, given up at times for dead, the dashing and thriving Pu appeared as rare as the endangered species on the choice menu of the Chinese elite.

Pu Zhiqiang and Ai Weiwei

Pu Zhiqiang and Ai Weiwei

In 2013, to much public elation, the mother who championed her daughter’s rape and prostitution case won a court judgment of $430 for her pain and distress. Bo Xilai’s disgrace had left a lot of his followers embittered, and the government moved to close down the labor camps, hoping to address public anger and to stoke hope for meaningful reform. A leash-weary media pounced, making Pu a star by covering the other freedom of speech cases he took on for labor camp victims. Never mind that the mission and business model of the labor camps were being quietly handed over to “legal education centers”, “Drug Rehabs” or arbitrary criminal or administrative detention (a law called “Community Correction Law” (《社区矫正法》) has been in the making and probably will be promulgated soon); Pu could accept the laurels with an easy conscience. In all likelihood, he would have gotten famous earlier were it not for the censors.

For one thing, he was Tan Zuoren’s (谭作人) lawyer. The environmentalist and panda advocate had, through a private investigation, concluded that the public schools which collapsed during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, killing thousands of school children, were shoddily built. The government prosecuted Tan for revealing state secrets, a bit of an exaggeration in a country where leaders routinely publicly make anti-corruption their priority. Pu put up a good fight. “A lot of the time he reminds you of a lazy cat,” Pu’s friend, legal scholar Xiao Han (萧瀚) writes, “but in court he becomes someone else.” Bristling with witticisms and backing the other side into the glaring holes in their argument which they never bother fixing for the kangaroo court, Pu would mount vigorous appeals to the goodness inherent in human nature. Such speeches are apparently so incendiary that the public is barred from finding out about them, or the defendant and his alleged crime.

Under these circumstances, to stay hopeful is not easy, but Pu makes good sport of it. Xiao again: “…he can’t help this mischievous and therefore boyish look, and sometimes he’d put on a counterfeit cynicism. Sad to say, he never got it right.” Sometimes he likes to brag and pat himself on the shoulder. Some of this may be due to the fact he was the baby of the family with four older siblings. His uncle and aunt, a childless couple, adopted him when he was three months old. Pu wrote, “my wet nurse was a sheep. People were too ignorant about complex chemical processes back then, so no melamine for me; all Mom did was boil the milk and add sugar. I got pretty chunky on it.” (Pu was taking a jab at the food safety scandals.) There is something of the well-loved child in his playful posturing, and much else besides. When he said he writes better than a best-selling author, Yu Qiuyu (余秋雨), for instance, it was a backhanded comment on Yu’s groveling call for blind patriotism equating the Communist Party with China. Seemingly self-indulgent jibes mask trenchant social and political commentary.

He does this best in his writing. He mixes high and low styles with flair, the same way he performs his high-wire acts as an activist. Mindful of censorship, his elliptical humor throws into sharp relief the physical violence he and his colleagues face, where abductions by the secret police become “involuntary vacations”:

I was taken on vacation a few days ago. I got brazen and asked for some due process: “Summon, detention, arrest – take your pick. Just hand me a piece of paper to make it look legal. Forget about taking me to some resort, you can toss me in the clink, feed me dried corn and torture me to force a confession however you like.” They were brazen back and tried throwing me off, “Nah, what d’you need that piece of paper for? After the time is up we’ll get you home right on the dot, now wouldn’t that be nice?” “Without that piece of paper, we’re looking at an abduction here. If you don’t have the guts to bump off the hostages you take, what the hell are you bungling fools doing hauling me around?

Coming back to Beijing in the dead of night, and here I was thinking I knew everything there was to know about bitter cold. Struck me homeless petitioners with poor health might not make it, and thought about Zhang Kai looking them up at night and calling for donations of warm clothing. Just heard that right in the middle of the same chilly night three carloads of thugs went in hot pursuit of our lawyer Zhang. I can’t wrap my mind around it – who in the world did Zhang offend by reaching out to help the petitioners? So Hollywood no longer needs to put up the investment, vet locations and throw up a studio when they run through Chinese streets shooting “The Godfather,” is that it?

Playfulness, in stark contrast to what they are up against, sustains many human rights activists. Pu and Ai Weiwei, the rebel artist whose name rhymes with love in Chinese and who is affectionately known as Cupid in a favorite spoof among his supporters, spent a memorable Valentine’s dinner together:

<Over dinner> Ai asked me how do you keep your blood sugar under control. I said shots. And doesn’t your belly end up pocked with needle marks? Let’s take a look. My guards were down and I pulled up my shirt. One flash and I heard the camera click. I thought oh hell, there goes a chunk of my personality rights. RT@aiww: Check out the smooth belly of our lawyer Pu. (

Pu’s command of classical Chinese learning defies expectations, all the more so given the seventy years of CCP rule that has robbed the language of memory and beauty. He juggles forgotten literary allusions and, with a chiseled and venerable street slang, writes and talks as if Communism never happened, even as he dissects the absurdities of the Communist system.

But words do sometimes fail Pu. In 2009, after the court handed down a five-year sentence against Tan Zuoren, Pu excused himself. Standing in the hallway outside the men’s room, Tan’s wife heard him bawl like a child.

Ai Weiwei, the iconoclast artist who, like Pu, got labeled as a dissident when he tried to uphold promises the Party claims to own, is another erstwhile client. When Ai disappeared into detention in 2011, Pu contributed to the advocacy campaign by penning a “Missing Person” notice whose humor is lined with the vehemence of having always to skirt around a Kafkaesque wall of lies. Even such a veiled gesture can be interpreted as a political act of defiance, and Pu probably edged a step closer to prison when he made this note public:

Looking for Ai Weiwei, who was last seen at Beijing Capital Airport on April 3, 2011. He’s more than half-way to a hundred and still don’t know a thing about the way of the world. Six-feet tall and more than two-hundred pounds, he sautes melon seeds and collects junk, strips in documentaries, and insults his motherland and calls his own Dad a dick (ed: Ai’s father was a national icon for patriotic poetry). He is nutty occasionally or else is acting like it…Anyone who catches him alive should dig a hole and bury him then and there – you’ll be eligible for a lottery to get a “Defender of the Republic” medal.

The last sentence is a nod towards the fact that activists who were detained and abused during this period reported that they were threatened with live burial.

Pu Zhiqiang in 1989 as a student of China University of Political Science and Law (中国政法大学)

Pu Zhiqiang in 1989 as a student of China University of Political Science and Law (中国政法大学)

What goes around, comes around. At long last, Pu’s balancing act broke down. He was a student leader during Tienanmen, the mass movement for peaceful political change in 1989, which, like the massacre that quashed it, remains a taboo. On May 5, 2014, the police picked up Pu, two days after he went to a friend’s house for a commemorative meeting on the massacre. “I’ve had a Tiananmen complex this entire time,” he told his lawyer. “I don’t mind paying the price. I regret nothing.” One gets the impression he has survivor’s guilt.

It is ironic that officials are putting away one of their ablest champions. After all, those who lose out in the Party power struggles find their rights stuffed in the meat grinder, including those in the top leadership. In a documentary, Pu aired some creative hair-raising tortures officials suffered. “Please tell everyone how terrifying this extralegal system against government officials is,” he tweeted, “I need your help.” As another suicide epidemic (Chinese) hit higher-level bureaucrats, almost all of whom the Party declared posthumously depressed, Pu tweeted: “Even if someone broke the law left and right and went after a lot of innocent people, I still wouldn’t want to see him caught up in the teeth of the machine. So what if he is a SOB? Not only do we have to make sure bad things don’t drag out for them, we’ve got to do what’s right by them.” It would seem that the system has an inveterate preference for arbitrary power at the expense, potentially, of everyone in it.

Everything has come full circle. Pu had this to say about getting rid of labor camps: “We can call it a big step forward in the rule of law, provided that ‘picking quarrels and causing trouble’ doesn’t become the next handy substitute.” The government seemed indeed to have tried its hand at pinning this one on him. Now Pu’s lawyer believes they may be moving on to other possibilities, interviewing witnesses thousands of miles away and ransacking Pu’s computers for. They reportedly put a hundred secret cops on his case. Where there is a will, there is a way. According to Pu’s lawyer, Zhang Sizhi, pressure from the Party is likely to dictate the outcome of Pu Zhiqiang’s case.

I never had the pleasure of meeting Pu, but everything about him and what he has done feels all too familiar. As I wind up this piece, the government is putting the finishing touches on another wave of roundups, nimbly switching off between a handful of similar crimes for the best and brightest in Chinese civil society, accusing them of undermining the state and society they work so hard at protecting. It is a great pity, for Pu and the state of things in China, that he is not around to tell us what he thinks of this latest but not the least irony.



Tencent microblogs


Author’s interviews with two of Pu’s friends.


Albertine Ren is a human rights advocate living in the U. S. with deep knowledge of the subject.

Chinese Lawyers for the Protection of Human Rights: Statement on the Abolition of Re-education Through Labour (RTL)

Originally published: November 19, 2013

On 15 November 2013, in its ‘CCP Central Committee Resolution Concerning Some Major Issues in Comprehensively Deepening Reform,’ debated and passed at the 18thCongress Third Plenary Meeting, the CCP announced that it would ‘abolish the Re-education Through Labour System, perfect the laws for punishment and correction of unlawful and criminal acts, and strengthen the community correction system.’ Thus, at the level of the ruling Party, an end has been proclaimed to the RTL system that has been in operation for the past 56 years.

Without any doubt, the RTL system is the product of a particular time and particular circumstances and contrary to rule of law. It is in direct conflict with Article 89 of the PRC’s 1954 Constitution, ‘No citizen may be arrested without approval by a People’s Court or People’s Procuracy;’ therefore, it has never been a legally effective system. The RTL system has played a most ignominious role in a number of historical phases including the anti-rightist movement, the strike-hard campaigns, and the stability preservation campaign. Especially from 1999 onward, in order to suppress a particular group, RTL measures were used even more widely.  The present decision of the ruling Party to proclaim its ‘abolition’ is a result brought about in response to forceful, joint efforts on the part of people in China, of the many victims of the RTL system, of all kinds of human rights defenders and of the international community.

Even though an end has been proclaimed to the RTL system, the Chinese people, in particular those in legal circles, ought to remember it and reflect on the disaster it has brought upon rule of law and human rights and its further negative impact.

We acknowledge and support the decision to ‘abolish Re-education Through Labour,’ but concerning its statement that it would ‘perfect the laws for punishment and correction of unlawful and criminal acts and strengthen the community correction system,’ we maintain a high degree of vigilance and concern. We therefore wish to make the following statements concerning the future of corrective legal systems in the ‘post-RTL era:’

1.  We propose that the National People’s Congress Standing Committee explicitly repeal the ‘Decision Concerning Problems of the Re-education Through Labour System,’ thereby giving a response to the whole nation’s citizens from the supreme State organ;

2. After abolition of RTL, all judicial departments should make active efforts to handle its aftermath and handle requests for state compensation made in accordance with law by former RTL inmates according to the provisions of the law.

3. Given that the Supreme People’s Court has already clearly stated that it will actively cooperate with RTL reform, and explore and improve mechanisms for the quick adjudication and decision of minor criminal cases, we believe that there is no longer a need for new legislation concerning the punishment and correction of illegal and criminal behaviour;

4. If there is insistence on enacting legislation on ‘perfecting the laws for punishment and correction of illegal and criminal conduct,’ then it must fully respect the constitutional principles guiding the respect for and protection of basic human rights, strictly limit the potential targets of such legislation and ensure that strict legal procedures are followed throughout, so as to prevent an arbitrary widening of targeted persons; and there ought to be safeguards ensuring that targeted persons can obtain timely judicial remedies.

5. As long as Legislation on ‘perfecting the laws for punishment and correction of illegal and criminal conduct’ involves the deprivation of liberty of the person, we advise as a precautionary measure that this legislation ought to be debated and enacted by the National People’s Congress and not by its Standing Committee. Such legislation ought to be made through open circulation for comments and discussion, a public hearing and with participation from all segments of society, so as to satisfy the requirements of the right to know and to participate.

6. After RTL has been abolished, detention places used for the illegal deprivation of liberty that have all along been operated outside the legal system, such as so-called ‘legal education bases,’ ‘legal education centres’, ‘training and warning places,’ all types of ‘black jails’ and other covert RTL facilities where citizens in fact become victims of crimes of false imprisonment must be immediately shut down and removed, and the legal responsibility of any person in authority for such illegal and criminal acts must be pursued.
Signatories (84 lawyers):

Jiang Tianyong (江天勇), Beijing; Wang Cheng (王成), Zhejiang; Li Heping (李和平), Beijing; Tang Jitian (唐吉田), Beijing; Liu Weiguo (刘卫国), Shandong; Li Fangping (李方平), Beijing; Tang Tianhao (唐天昊), Chongqing; Zhang Lei (张磊), Beijing; Pang Kun (庞琨), Guangdong; Wang Quanping (王全平), Guangdong; Ge Yongxi (葛永喜), Guangdong; Chen Jiangang (陈建刚), Beijing; Wu Kuiming (吴魁明), Guangdong; Sui Muqing (隋牧青), Guangdong; Chen Keyun (陈科云), Guangdong; Liu Zhengqing (刘正清), Guangdong; Liu Shihui (刘士辉), Guangdong; Wu Zhenqi (吴镇琦), Guangdong;  Liang Xiaojun (梁小军), Beijing; Zhang Keke, Hubei (张科科); Lan Zhixue  (兰志学), Beijing; Xie Yang (谢阳), Hunan; Chang Boyang (常伯阳), Henan; Fu Yonggang (付永刚), Shandong; Xu Chan (徐灿), Beijing; Xu Zhong (徐忠), Shandong;  Ge Wenxiu (葛文秀), Guangdong; Chen Wuquan (陈武权), Beijing; Teng Biao (滕彪), Beijing; Hu Guiyun (胡贵云), Beijing; Zhao Yonglin (赵永林), Shandong; Zhang Chuanli (张传利), Beijing; Liu Wei (刘巍), Beijing; Tang Jingling (唐荆陵), Guangdong; Liu Jinbin (刘金滨), Shandong; Zhou Lixin (周立新), Beijing; Chen Jinxue (陈进学), Guangdong; Fan Biaowen (范标文), Guangdong; Long Yuanfu (龙元富), Guangdong; Liang Xiubo (梁秀波), Henan;  Li Weida (李威达), Hebei;  Yu Quan (于全), Sichuan; Li Wei (刘 伟), Henan; Wang Zongyue (王宗跃), Guizhou;  Li Xiongbing (黎雄兵), Beijing; Xiao Fanghua (肖芳华), Guangdong; Li Jinxing (李金星), Shandong; Shi Yongsheng (石永胜), Hebei; Li Guobei (李国蓓), Beijing; Zhang Guo (张国), Hunan; Wang Liao (汪廖), Zhejiang; Jiang Yuanmin (蒋援民), Guangdong; Guo Lianhui (郭莲辉), Jiangxi; Guo Xinrong (郭新嵘), Beijing; Li Changming (李长明), Beijing; Zheng Enchong (郑恩宠 ), Shanghai; Ran Tong (冉彤), Sichuan; Zhu Yingming (朱应明), Jiangsu; Li Dawei (李大伟), Gansu; Li Changqing (李长青), Beijing; Deng Linhua (邓林华 ); Yang Xuan (杨璇); Tian Yuan (田园), Hunan; Xie Yanyi (谢燕益), Beijing; Li Ruyu (李如玉), Jiangsu; Lin Qilei (蔺其磊), Beijing; Huang Jian (黄建), Sichuan; Liu Sixin (刘四新), Beijing; Liu Lianhe (刘连贺), Tianjin; Shu Xiangxin (舒向新), Shandong; Wang Hui (王辉), Henan; Gan Weidong (干卫东), Xinjiang; Zhang Weiyu (张维玉), Shandong; Wen Yu (闻宇), Guangdong; Huang Yizhi (黄溢智), Beijing; Yan Wangli (燕旺利), Hunan; Li Subin (李苏滨), Beijing; Feng Yanqiang (冯延强), Shandong; Wang Bijun (王必君), Guangdong; Wei Liangyue (韦良月), Heilongjiang; Liang Lanxin (梁澜罄), Hebei; Luo Lizhi (罗立志), Hunan; Chen Yixuan (陈以轩), Hunan; Zhang Guo (张国 ), Hunan; Wang Xianping (王先平), Xinjiang; Chu Yukun (储玉坤), Beijing.

Signatures are in the process of being collected. We invite Chinese lawyers to join Chinese Lawyers for the Protection of Human Rights and to add their signature to this statement.

Human Rights Lawyers Group Contact Persons :

Wang Cheng (王成), tel. 13616501896
Tang Jitian (唐吉田), tel. 13161302848
Jiang Tianyong, (江天勇), tel. 13001010856

A simulation of roll call outside Beijing RTL Center. When your name is called, you must squat as illustrated. Otherwise, you must stand bowing down your head. Photo provided by Ye Jinghuan (野靖环).

A reenactment of roll call in a Beijing RTL Center. When your name is called, you must squat as illustrated. Otherwise, you must stand bowing down your head. Photo provided by Ye Jinghuan (野靖环).

Related reading:

Vaginas in Wrath: Face to Face with Masanjia Woman’s Labor Camp, by Ai Xiaoming

To Remember Is to Resist, by Teng Biao

Chinese original

(Not a translation.)

A simulation of torture in a black jail. Photo provided by Wang Jianfen (王建芬).

A reenactment of torture in a black jail in Wuxi, Jiangsu. Photo provided by Wang Jianfen (王建芬).

To Remember Is to Resist – by Teng Biao

Teng BiaoSimply put, Teng Biao (滕彪) is one of the best known human rights lawyers and legal scholars in China. This is his preface to a memoir entitled “A Worthwhile Trip—A Documentation of Beijing Reeducation-through-Labor Dispatch Center”, in which he looks deep into what these camps do to inmates as human beings. It’s much worse than just turning them into cheap labor making Christmas gifts for the American market. 


It’s inconceivable, in a modern society, to detain a citizen for up to three, even four, years based merely on police decisions without going through any proper judiciary procedure. But in present-day China, it is a vivid reality, and hundreds and thousands of Chinese citizens have fallen victims to it. That is since China’s re-education-through-labor system was implemented in  1957. More and more scholars, lawyers and citizens from all walks of life have been making strong demand to abolish it, while the international community has also been pressing China to end it by honoring a series of international human rights conventions that China has adopted. But until today, re-education-through-labor is still widely used. Re-education-through-labor camps detain not only petty criminals, but also drug addicts, prostitutes and clients of prostitutes, and people with mental illnesses. More and more, it has been used to persecute Falungong practitioners, petitioners and dissidents.

Like with most of the things in life, people often are satisfied with a general impression or prevailing description without a chance, or the willingness, to explore and study it in detail, especially the fate and the feelings of the people involved. On topics such as that of war, disaster, mass murder, imprisonment and torture, we tend to, intentionally or not, avoid its dark and bloody depth. But this is precisely what good writing does, especially documentary writing. It is an important addition to our routine experiences. We must face it all; we must not pretend these things have never happened.

The book in front of me, A Worthwhile Trip—A Documentation of Beijing Reeducation-through-Labor Dispatch Center, is a witness’ testimony of China’s re-education-through-labor system. It reveals the system to us, and at the same time, it also raises much larger issues about our political system, society and human nature. The author of the book is Ye Jinghuan (野靖环), a victim of “Xin Guo Da” futures fraud (新国大) in late 1990s involving former Prime Minister’s son. During eleven years of petitioning, she was repeatedly beaten by police, detained, arrested, and finally been given reeducation-through-labor. In the Reeducation-through-Labor Dispatch Center, she suffered various torture, sometimes on to the brink of breaking down. But she kept telling herself, “I can’t die, I can’t lose my mind, I must get out of here alive! I must tell everyone about the evils of re-education-through-labor, and I must tell it to posterity!” Because of her refusal to give in, the world is able to see the true face of re-education-through-labor. At the same time, writing is  cathartic for the author; through it she is able to re-examine life and participate in reality constructively.


According to the author’s investigation, most petitioners among RTL detainees have been subjected to electric baton and confinement in the “little dark room”. Even though China adopted the UN Convention against Torture in 1988, torture is still widely used these days in detention centers, prisons and other incarceration venues, and a great number of citizens die of it, or are debilitated by it. Torture perpetrated in RTL camps is extremely cruel; brutalities against Falungong practitioners are beyond imagination and continue to be perpetrated. The persecution of Falungong has long marked the nadir of human civilization, and constitutes, without a doubt, crimes against humanity. But internationally and domestically, only a few are willing, or would dare, to condemn it. For intellectuals and politicians, it is an irony and a shame that will only grow as time moves on.

The “characteristics” of Chinese prisons lie in that “law enforcers humiliate and abuse prisoners as a part of the system,” said Wang Lixiong when commenting on Liao Yiwu’s Testimony. A Worthwhile Trip is less about physical abuses than the routine “teaching” in the camp that abuses and tortures the “RTLers” mentally. Many of its rules and informal requirements are designed to humiliate people so as to destroy their basic dignities as human beings. For example, “Head must be lowered when walking in hallways, lining up, speaking to police officers. Standard head-lowering is to look at the tip of your toes.” For another example, no going to restroom is allowed except at designated times. “Shoes, tooth brush and other objects must be displayed in a straight line; no compromise is tolerated.” If you wash your neck when you wash your face, watchers will call you out immediately, “Who said you can wash your neck? Wash your face only, no washing anywhere else!” To receive your meal at meal times, male RTLers must kneel on one knee with both hands holding up the bowl. Damp clothes cannot be dried over bedframes or chairs even during the night. No looking out the windows. RTLers must address each other by names; calling someone “Aunt” or “Sister” will result in point reduction for behavior. Such requirements are ubiquitous. The first day in the Center the cadre said, addressing to the newcomers, “To put it simply, don’t think you are a human being.” While urging the RTLers to forget about what it means to be a human, the administration officers indeed carried out that advice. Some RTLers summarized the methods as “Strike down your self-esteem; destroy your soul; humiliate your dignity; and weaken your health.” Obviously, these methods are not meant to “educate and reshape” but to degrade.

Along with physical “disciplines” are remake of the mind. For any little error that’s been discovered, you have to repent in writing. Those who are disobedient or unwilling to give up their beliefs are subjected to a form of solitary confinement, Bao Jia (包夹, wrap and sandwich) where two or more RTLers are used to punish a particular RTLer by sandwiching him or her 24 hours a day so that he or she will have no freedom whatsoever to move or talk. Other punishments include reducing his or her points, denying family visits, extending or threatening to extend, his or her sentences. Bao Jia seems to be a unique Chinese invention. According to the rules, the sandwiching RTLers must stay less than 10cm away from the sandwiched RTLer, and they are required to keep detailed record of every utterance, every movement, and any mood changes of the RTLer. Even his or her sleep has to be described too.

One time, Ye Jinghuan was upbraided for having “too relaxed expressions” that the lieutenant noticed from surveillance cameras. Along with microphones and small speakers, they readily remind us of the screens and the Big Brother in 1984. In the camp, the more you appear strong, composed and humane, the more they hate you. Those who are degraded to the level of a worm or an insect submitting to the apparatus or becoming its helpers are the ones who please the camp keepers the most.

The book tells a story: Lu Jing (卢静) and Ye Jinghuan were roommates and became good friends. Lu called Ye mom, and this is how Ye describes the young girl: “She was always sunny, full of joy. She was so uplifting to me. I liked her very much.” But having been assigned to sandwich Ye Jinghuan for a while, one day, she suddenly broke down. She said, crying, “Lieutenant Yuan said everybody was reporting to her that I had never upbraided you; and that I often talked to you, and I let you use bathroom and wash your hands when I was on duty. She knows everything. She said if I wanted to reduce my sentence, I must change my attitude toward you. She said she knows our relationship in Haidian Detention Center, and that’s why she has put it up for so long. But not anymore! Ye Jinghuan, from now on, I have to watch you the way the lieutenant requires of me; or I will have no hope.” The author said, “Lu Jing, do what you want to do; don’t think about me.” Lu Jing said, “The lieutenant requires me to scold you every day, I can’t do it because of our friendship in Haidian Detention Center. But I have no choice. If I don’t pick on you, they will pick on me. In the end, I will be given the sandwich treatment just like you. If I am like you, upbraided and dressed down every day, I won’t be able to live. So I am going to protect myself first. I have been in prison for four years and I have never felt so terrible. It’s only been four months here, and I can’t take it anymore.”

From that point on Lu Jing changed. It is a minute story of how a Re-education-through-labor camp is a place that eats up and erodes away your humanity. It puts everyone in a moral dilemma: If you follow your conscience, your sense of right and wrong, you will hurt yourself. It works the same for both the detainees and the jail guards. Victims become tormenters. In too many cases, “criminals” watch, beat, torture their peers way beyond policy allowance, sometimes way harsher than the abusive guards. On the other hand, persecutors are also victims. As they abuse others physically and destroy their dignities, they themselves also lose the wholeness of human beings; as they make others less human, they are doing the same to themselves.

The RTL system is a microcosm of Chinese society, but also a microcosm of the political system in China. It epitomizes the destructive capabilities of the totalitarian system. Ran Yunfei (冉云飞) once said, “China is a mutual harm society.” From this book, from the many witness accounts and from the blocked news online, we can see the confirmation of “mutual harm.”

Remarkably, Ye Jinghuan managed to maintain her dignity in such a hostile environment. She taught others to read, helped others to write letters. She didn’t just fight for her own rights; she also helped others stand for their rights. Sometimes, in the camp, the protest would actually have a little effect, even to the point that these results may become customary that would benefit other inmates. Sometimes, Ye Jinghuan struggled, disciplinary cadres would make other inmates “keep her company,” and she was forced to give up the fight in consideration of the interests of others.

In the labor camps Ye Jinghuan tried her best to explore the radiance of humanity in others, even it was only an occasional, fleeting flash in the surrounding darkness. She made the greatest efforts to understand the evildoers, not treating them as simply monsters. Sometimes this came in a gesture of support, an understanding eye contact, or a warm word, all a reflection of the humanity that had not been destroyed. She so comments on camp cadres: “Why are they always hiding their own beautiful side while presenting a cruel and ruthless side to us? Because in their eyes and in their hearts, inmates are not human beings! Since they started working there at twenty years old, their leaders have trained them to be the tools to persecute the inmates!” “One basically kind-hearted, sunny girl was transformed to be a person like Lieutenant Yang. Everyone with a little medical knowledge knows that a person with blood pressure of 180 needs a break, otherwise it will be dangerous. But Gu Li ordered such a hypertension patient, an old lady, to turn left and right non-stop, just to vent her own dissatisfaction. At the Dispatch Center, it was not just the inmates who have been devastated, but also many young guards who by nature are not bad people at all.”


To record sufferings is to prevent tragedies from happening again. After the author obtained her freedom she wrote to a disciplinary cadre saying: “I wrote this book, in the hope that these stories of blood and tears of the inmates never occur again, and I hope that you will stop abusing inmates, stop participating in such violations of human rights and things that offend the heaven and the reason. Let it all become history!” But Ye Jinghuan heard no response.

Reeducation through labor is an anti-human system, and its existence is a shame to humanity, not merely a disgrace to the Chinese people, just as Auschwitz is not just for the Jews, but for all humanity. It is an evil system entangled with the evil in human nature: men’s choices of actions define the system; and the system in turn encourages the dark and evil side of human nature, thereby creating more sins. Institutional evil does not absolve individual responsibility. A system is not an abstraction without action takers, nor is there a law that can implement itself once written in words. If all sins are easily blamed on the “evil system of reeducation through labor “, that is tantamount to giving up the individual responsibility of humanity and the meaning of life. If there is no remorse and self-reflection, the sins of any evil regime will not end. To face the truth and to refuse to forget are the precondition for reflection. For those who live under the totalitarianism and those who witnessed the evils and sufferings, remembrance and recording are a way to restore their humanity, also a meaningful resistance. Once the truth is spoken, it cannot be defeated by violence; once testimony is made, it cannot be buried and forgotten.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (Santayana). Without remembering, it is very difficult to become a complete person; just as without hope, it is difficult to develop human nature. Memories and hope are essential for the advancement of humanity. Our actions and dreams alike are all connected to remembering. Many authors have discussed the political and philosophical significance of memory. Günter Grass believes that the essence of literature is memory. When he received the 1999 Nobel Prize for Literature he said: “Literature is still a force, people are eager to forget things, but literature can remember them for a long time.” Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel wrote that remembering “is not a profession, not an ambition, but an obligation.” Avishai Margalit spent a whole book discussing “The Ethics of Memory,” and he believes that interpersonal relationships include a moral obligation to remember, and when murderous crimes against humanity occurr or universal humanity is under attack, individuals bear the moral responsibility of preserving the memory. People must remember the evil events that destroy humanity.

Totalitarianism seeks to control memories, making people forget the real history. Those who dare to tell the truth would be subject to varying degrees of punishment, because the truth in the records and speeches are often testimonies of crimes that the totalitarian rulers want to conceal. If nobody testifies and remembers, the suffering of the people will never stop, and the perpetrators will continue their crimes with impunity.

We must be worthy of the immense sufferings we have been subjected to. The suffering of the Chinese people over this past century is similar to that experienced in Auschwitz. Liao Yiwu (廖亦武), Yang Jisheng (杨继绳), Zheng Yi (郑义), Long Yingtai (龙应台), Yang Xianhui (杨显惠), Yan Zhengxue (严正学) and other writers have written powerful works; and we have reason to call out more powerful memories and narratives of the past and current suffering. We look forward to China’s own Wiesel, Solzhenitsyn, Celan and Kapuscinski. No matter it is through testimony or works of fiction, real literature must be true to our history, must ruthlessly question our own souls, and compassionately gaze at the future of the human race.