Hong Kong (AsiaNews) - As Chinese authorities ponder scrapping the laojiao, the 're-education through labour' programme that is part of the country's penal system, two courageous documentary films were screened today in Hong Kong and Taipei showing the brutality child inmates suffered in the 60s and women still endure today.
Chinese legal experts and human rights activists have tried for years to stop the laojiao, deemed "arbitrary" and "unconstitutional" by its critics. In recent months, the government has moved in different directions on the matter. After announcing it was closing "some" facilities in two provinces, it later backtracked and is now talking about reforming the system.
The first documentary premiered today in Hong Kong's 1908 bookshop and Taipei's Cafe Philo as well as online (see trailer). Titled Juvenile Labourers Confined in Dabao, it was directed by Xie Yihui, and tells the story of the children of Dabao, a facility in Sichuan where at least 2,600 inmates died from "re-education through labour".
After Communists came to power in 1949, juvenile labour and education centres were set up across the mainland in the late 1950s, based on the Soviet model. Young delinquents and street children were sent to such locations for reform.
Some of the inmates were young offenders convicted of petty crimes, but many were sent by impoverished parents who believed their children would fare better in an institution where they were promised food and education.
Witnesses said that 5,000 to 6,000 children aged from nine upwards were sent to Dabao from late 1957 until it was closed in 1962.
Former inmates, now mostly in their 60s, said they were forced to do hard labour such as hauling wood, clearing land and planting crops under the supervision of guards armed with whips.
At the height of the Great Famine (1958-1961) that followed the unprecedented economic disaster caused by Mao's Great Leap Forward, the child inmates ate anything they could find: earthworms, mice and poisonous plants. Whilst many still died from malnutrition, others developed parasitic infections that eventually killed them.
Above the Ghosts' Heads: The Women of Masanjia Labour Camp (see trailer), by freelance photographer Du Bin, is the other documentary that premiered today.
Based on the testimony of recently released prisoners, the documentary depicts the cruelty and violence perpetrated in the Masanjia women's labour camp, in Liaoning province, one of more than 300 labour camps that still dot the landscape of mainland China, where police can imprison people for up to four years without trial.
"Re-education through labour is the most evil system on earth," said Liu Hua, a former inmate who was released in October.
"The Masanjia female camp is the most evil camp on earth," a place where "we were made slaves and hostages," a site Chinese Human Rights Defender had already slammed as the worst in all of China.
In telling their story, Liu and a dozen other interviewees told director Du Bin of severe torture, beatings as well as mental and sexual violence.
Du and Xie hope that their documentaries will speed up the laojiao's demise.
"At the camp, they don't treat people like humans," Du said. "All I want to say is that they are humans, not animals and they can't humiliate people like that."
For her part, Xie said she hoped mainland Chinese officials would watch her film, "so they could see what consequence those regulations can have on ordinary people."