For over a year, Ren Jianyu worked 10 hours a day in a factory surrounded by high prison walls, welding tiny copper rings together alongside hundreds of other inmates. He didn't know what he was making. He didn't know why he was there.
The 25-year-old civil servant was just one of an estimated 190,000 Chinese sentenced to serve into the country's network of 350 work camps, a penal system designed by Mao Zedong to dispense with political opponents without the bother of a trial. Long after the Chairman's death, Chinese citizens can still be sentenced to up to four years of "re-education through labour." No charges, no lawyers, no appeals.
Now that he's out, Mr. Ren says he wants to make sure that what happened to him never happens to anyone else. And the absurdity of the whole episode – which has been widely reported in Chinese media since his release, generating outrage and sympathy – may help finally bring an end to what human rights activists dub the "re-education archipelago."
A new generation of party leaders will take the reins of government over the next week, led by Xi Jinping, who will take over from Hu Jintao as President. Mr. Xi was himself assigned to a labour gang for seven years in the 1960s and 70s after his family fell out of Mao's grace during the Cultural Revolution, giving rise to hope Mr. Xi may be the one who abolishes the work camp system.
On Sunday, the official Xinhua newswire reported that the re-education through labour system would be reformed "not before long." "Rampant abuse of the system in recent years has made it a point of public controversy, with calls for abolishing the system growing louder," Xinhua noted. It was the latest in a series of suggestions that reforming or abolishing the work camps is a priority for the incoming leaders.
Mr. Ren believes he was sent to a camp outside the sprawling Yangtze River metropolis of Chongqing because he posted something online that offended Bo Xilai, the mercurial ex-boss of the local Communist Party. Mr. Bo was wildly popular among Chongqing residents because of his anti-crime campaigns, but he also alarmed many intellectuals with his disregard for judicial procedure and his embrace of Mao-era slogans and songs.
In a stunning twist of fate, Mr. Ren is now free and Mr. Bo is the one who has disappeared into China's justice system without yet being charged. (Mr. Bo, who was last seen in public a year ago, is expected to eventually face allegations of corruption and abuse of power.)
"I'm still trying to analyze with my lawyer what exactly it was that I wrote that brought attention to me. I think maybe it was because I said [Mr. Bo's] anti-mafia crackdown and 'Red Song' campaigns were like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution," Mr. Ren said in an interview earlier this year at one of Chongqing's numerous Starbucks cafes. "I never saw a judge."
A team of Chongqing public security agents came to Mr. Ren's house in the summer of 2011, and told him he needed to come to the police station. He was sentenced to two years of re-education through labour and sentenced to share a cell with 11 others. Some were petty criminals; others were ordinary Chinese who, like him, had offended a local Communist Party official. "I went through every feeling: pain, hate, denial," Mr. Ren recalled of his time in the work camp.
After a month of military-style training – including forced marches around the perimeter of the sprawling facility, which had four dormitories, a rarely used soccer field and the factory – Mr. Ren found himself working alongside hundreds of other inmates, welding the tiny copper rings together. "I think they were electrical components – for circuitry," he guessed. "We had a quota, a certain number we had to make every day, but I could never finish in time."
Every now and again, the work would stop so the officers could deliver the education portion of their punishment. "They just told us stories of Communist heroes I already knew from my childhood," Mr. Ren recalled. On the wall of the factory hung a red banner quoting Karl Marx: "Manual labour is the great antidote to all society's ills."
It seems unlikely the Chinese power apparatus will abolish the labour camp system completely, largely because it remains a handy way for the state to lock up those who disagree with it. Liu Xiaobo, the dissident and Nobel Peace prize laureate, spent three years in a labour camp in the 1990s for questioning the Communist Party's right to rule (he's now serving a separate 11-year jail sentence for publishing a pro-democracy manifesto). Thousands of adherents of the Falun Gong religious sect have disappeared into the labour camp system over the past 15 years.
But Mr. Ren's case struck a chord nationwide precisely because he wasn't a political or religious activist, just someone who had posted his thoughts on the Internet.
"Factually, [the labour camp system] has become a tool that local governments used to get revenge on ordinary people," said Zhou Litai, a prominent Chongqing lawyer.
"[It] is the opposite of what China's current social and legal system requires."