Of the hundreds of thousands of victims of China’s arbitrary, extralegal “reeducation-through-labor” system, a young man in Chongqing named Ren Jianyu (任建宇) was recently freed, thanks to the downfall of Bo Xilai, even though his filing against the government for sentencing him to RTL is being rejected. In a fascinating interview with The Beijing News (《新京报》), Ren Jianyu speaks of his experience at the labor camp, and displays refreshing qualities of a younger generation of Chinese. If 1/3 of this generation thinks and acts like him, China would be a transformed country. Hannah translates. –Yaxue
Ren Jianyu: Re-education-through-labor Not a Lesson, but an Experience
Who Is Ren Jianyu?
In July 2009, Ren Jianyu graduated from Chongqing University of Arts and Sciences with a degree in the Chinese language. The same year, he was selected to be a college-grad-to-village-head in YuShan township, Pengshui county. Last year, during the announcement of his civil servant position, Chongqing’s Bureau for Re-education through Labor believed Ren Jianyu to have many times expressed “negative speech and information” and “to incite subversion of state power” online from February to August of 2011. He was sentenced to two years of re-education through labor, “according to relevant statute.”
Civil Servant Arrested on Day of Induction
The Beijing News: Before imprisonment, you were a hard-working “village head,” about to be inducted as a civil servant. Why did you post those troublesome posts online?
Ren Jianyu: I admit to being relatively upright, and a little bit of an “angry youth.” Especially since using Weibo and seeing a lot of injustices in society, I was influenced by “public intellectuals.” So I sent out a few Weibo messages to the forums on QQ. They are basically all re-posts – I didn’t write any posts myself.
But I was in support of the Party’s leadership and when someone in the group said something radical, I would say, “Don’t be like that, there is no reason for it.”
The Beijing News: Last year on the 17th of August, when the Public Security Bureau sought you out for interrogation, what posts were they mainly concerned about?
Ren Jianyu: Most were still about Chongqing’s “Sing Red, Strike Down Black” Campaign [to sing the praises of the Communist party and attack crime; a campaign under Bo Xilai], and there were a few that opposed the “two hundred million households with ten-thousand yuan income” plan. There was certainly some money allocated, but it did not actually reach the households themselves; most was spent on the campaign’s briefing materials. Too much effort was spent on fake work.
The Beijing News: The day after the interrogation, they announced your arrest and sent you to the detention center, what was your feeling?
Ren Jianyu: I was at a loss. When they handcuffed me, I had no feeling, just utter numbness. I couldn’t think of anything – calling my parents, appealing, nothing. When I was being fingerprinted as was required, I was so lost in confusion that several times I couldn’t even press my fingers down for the print. The officer said, “Are you feeling flustered?”
The Beijing News: You were completely mentally unprepared?
Ren Jianyu: Completely unprepared. What crime can it be in saying these few things online, nobody would have thought of this. I was arrested precisely the same day I was inducted into the civil service.
The Beijing News: The “Decision of Case-Filing” said that you were suspected of “inciting subversion of state power.” What do you think of this charge?
Ren Jianyu: You cannot charge people with inciting subversion just because someone made a few complaints! A Pengshui county police who took me to the detention center said “the biggest case we had ever dealt with had been illegal border-crossing, and you are such a big deal as to inciting subversion of state power!”
The Beijing News: In the detention center you wrote an apology letter, and in it you said that you “thoroughly recognized [my] own childishness and stupidity.” Do you really think you did something wrong?
Ren Jianyu: When I wrote the apology letter, I thought it would get me out of jail. So in hopes of being forgiven, I wrote very sincerely, even though I didn’t think I actually did anything wrong. I also wanted to emphasize that when I re-posted those messages, it was in hopes of supporting reform led by the communist party.
Life and Love in Labor Camp
The Beijing News: When your family visited you at the labor camp, what did you say to them?
Ren Jianyu: The first thing I did was apologize to my girlfriend. She said I had nothing to apologize to her for. Second thing was to console my father and make him believe that I did not do anything bad. I said, “In ten or twenty years, I will be absolved, and my slate will be wiped clean.”
The Beijing News: When you say you think you can be redressed in ten or twenty years, are you expressing a positive or negative view of China’s legal progress?
Ren Jianyu: Positive. I believe such a day will eventually come, slowly, and I can wait.
The Beijing News: How did you get by in labor camp?
Ren Jianyu: It was alright, but as soon as I arrived, every night as I was falling asleep my mind was filled with hallucinations. I thought I was locked in a birdcage whose walls were coming down on me, and I kept shrinking. That was a truly terrible feeling.
The Beijing News: When you were a “village leader,” you often organized groups to sing red songs, or communist hymns, but in prison, even though singing red songs could decrease your serving time, you did not sing once. Why is that?
Ren Jianyu: When I was a “village leader,” organizing the singing was my duty. I wanted to fulfill my duties. But in prison, I was an individual, and I could do what I wanted. I don’t like to “sing red,” and I thinking “singing red” is meaningless. It can’t instigate economic development.
The Beijing News: However, “singing red” is not primarily to instigate economic development, but rather to rouse spirits.
Ren Jianyu: Well then, the money used to organize communist hymnals could have been directly spent on improving people’s life; that would win popular support even more.
The Beijing News: What did you like to read in the camp and why?
Ren Jianyu: One Hundred Years of Solitude, a book my girlfriend brought in for me – I read over and over. I think the world portrayed in the book is just so absurd.
The Beijing News: You and your girlfriend exchanged many letters. What did she write that moved you the most?
Red Jianyu: There is too much. For example, she said, “Whenever you are to propose to me, my response will always be: ‘Yes, I do. [in English]”
“The report of the 18th Party Congress gave me greater confidence”
The Beijing News: Before this, did you know of Chongqing imprisoning people for things they said?
Ren Jianyu: A long while ago I knew about the Pengshui poem case (in Chinese), and I never considered that I would have a similar experience. Later on, I heard of a certain Fang Zhusun (Fang Hong) who was given RTL for saying Bo Xilai pooped “a pile of shit” (in Chinese). I never thought that I would meet him in the camp last November.
The Beijing News: What did you two talk about?
Ren Jianyu: We were fellow RTLers – since we were in labor camp prison together, we became friends. I introduced my case to him, and my feeling was that he cared more about political issues than myself.
The Beijing News: In the camp, did you guys hear about anything going on outside?
Ren Jianyu: We knew the basic stuff. We would watch CCTV Evening News, and Chongqing Rule of Law (《重庆法制报》)was sent weekly. Fang Hong would give me his run-down of it. The day that Wang Lijun was removed from office as Vice Mayor of Chongqing, everybody was watching the news together, and the camp was roiled like a boiling pot. Whether it were the inmates prison guards, everyone was applauding – smiles and laughter all around.
The Beijing News: Did you see the press conference of Prime Minister Wen Jiabao during the Two Meetings? Did you hear what he said in the end?
Ren Jianyu: Unfortunately I didn’t finish watching before we had to leave to do some labor. But afterwards people from outside told us. In April, Fan Zhusun left the labor camp, and he said to me that he would definitely help set me free. In June, Fang Hong sued the Chongqing Reeducation through Labor Committee and won the case. I knew then that things had changed.
The Beijing News: Did you watch the 18th Party Congress?
Ren Jianyu: Yes, I watched it, and I also studied the report very carefully.
The Beijing News: What parts of the report were most interesting to you?
Ren Jianyu: The fifth part. Maintaining the path to developing Chinese-style socialism and pushing forward political reform, including promoting comprehensive legal governance, establishing healthy check and balance of powers, etc. I feel this part of the report is closely related to my fate–I was sentenced to reeducation through labor because the local government failed to use the law to govern, and power wasn’t checked and balanced.
The Beijing News: After reading the report, do you feel more hopeful for a repeal on your sentence?
Ren Jianyu: You could say that. But I feel I didn’t do anything wrong to begin with.
“From needing freedom to fighting for freedom”
The Beijing News: As someone who has personal experience, what do you think of the the reeducation-through-labor system?
Ren Jianyu: This system is the antithesis of a society governed by law. It is very random — the reeducation through labor committee can strip people’s freedom at will, and take it away for a long time with no basis. It causes so much pain.
The Beijing News: Can you use a specific example from your own experiences that demonstrates this “randomness”?
Ren Jianyu: In the detention center, the reeducation through labor committee proposed “a planned decision to give you one year of reeducation through labor.” I thought a year was not long, and if I pretend to be busy with work and did not return home, I could fool my family, so I gritted my teeth and signed my name. But then when the “Reeducation through Labor Verdict” came out, it said Ren Jianyu’s term would be two years, and didn’t give a reason! I was devastated, and could only crouch down in the corner, holding my head in my hands, not able to say a word.
So, as for my personal experience, I think that even if the reeducation through labor system is not abolished, there still needs to be a big reform. There should be more check-and-balance measures among more agencies.
The Beijing News: Yesterday the verdict was rescinded and you received your freedom. But why are you refusing to drop charges against the reeducation through labor bureau?
Ren Jianyu: The reason the bureau’s verdict was rescinded was because they treated the case inappropriately, not because any illegalities – this is something I cannot accept. Yesterday, the court also persuaded me to drop the charges, saying that there was no need to oppose the reeducation through labor system at the expense of my own future prospects. I said I’m just seeking my proper rights and interests, and all I want is a clean slate.
The Beijing News: In the evidence collected by the police, there was a T-shirt with the meme “Without freedom, I would rather die.” When you bought this shirt, what did you take it to mean?
Ren Jianyu: People all need to be able to live freely, and this was how I also told the police. But they didn’t listen. They just keep saying that this phrase indicated that I think so long as China is not free, it is better to die.
The Beijing News: Having lost your freedom for more than a year, has your understanding of this phrase changed?
Ren Jianyu: It has. I now think that this phrase means freedom must be fought for, and that every person must hold fast to her or his proper legal rights, and that only then will society be free. This is another reason that I’m not dropping the charges.
The Beijing News: What plans do you have for the future?
Ren Jianyu: I hope I can go back and be a civil servant, as originally planned.
The Beijing News: You ended up in this mishap when you were a civil servant, critical of some of the bureaucratic practices and the grandiose style of work. So why do you want to go back?
Ren Jianyu: Because the verdict of my innocence has not been admitted, so I must rehabilitate my position as a civil servant. Only this way can I prove myself clean. Otherwise, I’m very worried that I’ll be stuck with the “law-breaker” label.
The Beijing News: Now, as far as you are concerned, reeducation through labor isn’t a lesson for you to learn?
Ren Jianyu: That’s right, reeducation through labor isn’t a lesson for me to learn. Instead, it is an experience.
Kong Ye, The Beijing News, reporting from Chongqing.