A Glimmer of Hope Offered by Chinese Example
I was halfway through my mid-morning snack on Friday the 15th of November, sitting at my desk at work when the words on my computer screen hit me: 'The Chinese government has decided to abolish the “reeducation through labor” camp system'. I could scarcely believe what I was reading and had to pause before carrying on with the rest of the news article, but according to the BBC, this decision had been made as part of the reform programme established by the new leadership in that country.
On the preceding Wednesday I gave a talk to the Mid Gloucestershire Amnesty Group in Stroud on the subject of political prison camps prevalent in North Korea. As part of the Q+A session which followed, a member of the audience asked if any pressure could be exerted on the Chinese government (with whom the West has diplomatic relations) to get their North Korean counterparts to acknowledge their appalling human rights record. My answer to this question was that China had a poor human rights record itself and indeed the existence of Chinese labor camps, albeit operated with less severity will render any such measure meaningless. Had I given the talk two or three days later my answer would have surely been different. It might have read thus: 'Now that China has decided to end its labor camp system, there is a glimmer of hope that North Korea will follow suit as China remains one of the main backers of the North Korean regime and indeed has a great deal of influence on it'.
The political prison camp system in North Korea was established around the same time as the Chinese labor camp system in the 1950s and 60s. They share many similarities in that political dissenters and anybody perceived to be a threat to the ruling regime is liable to be sent to a period of incarceration in the camps. Both systems dole out lifetime sentences and purport to re-educate certain prisoners through practices such as slave-like labor in mines interspersed with forced ideological learning (in the North Korean case). Both have been compared to the gulag system operated in the former Soviet Union (believed to have inspired their creation), in which inmates are kept in a state of near-starvation to prevent prison revolts. However, the North Korean system goes a lot further on the scale of cruelty by sentencing up to three generations of the family of the offender alongside him/her in a bid supposedly to 'remove the seed' of the criminal from the rest of society. This practice known as 'guilt by association' results in brothers, sisters, parents, grandparents and children being rounded up often without any idea which family member is designated the criminal. Other marks of the cruelty of the North Korean system include extrajudicial killings, extensive torture, sexual assaults, forced abortions, and chemical and biological weapons testing on inmates (as reported by the Guardian in 2004).
It is my hope that this positive step taken by the Chinese communist leadership will represent a shift in the human rights acknowledgement across the whole region. A step which has in all likelihood come about as a result of the persistent campaigning by human rights bodies such as Amnesty; and a move which I hope will make the North Korean government firstly acknowledge the existence of the prison camps and ultimately make moves towards their eventual dissolution and closure.
AIUK Country Coordinator for China & East Asia (Korea)