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In China, Not Everything Has Changed

A lot of journalism about China focuses on the country's rapid and stunning changes, but equally telling are the things that stay the same. I did my first story on China's re-education through labor camps back in 2001.

I met a former inmate named Liu Xiaobo for lunch in Beijing. Liu, soft-spoken and thoughtful, had written an article mourning those who had died in the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. He had also called for democracy.

So, one day, police took him from his house and charged him with "slandering the Communist Party" and "disrupting social order."

"It took no more than an hour and a half for them to arrest me in my home, declare a sentence of three years in a re-education camp and send me to another detention center in suburban Beijing," said Liu over cups of tea. "I never imagined they could use such a fast method. If I hadn't gone to the toilet, it would have been even shorter."

Not long after I talked to Liu, I left China. Liu continued his calls for political change, which landed him in prison.

In 2010, he won the Nobel Peace Prize.

I returned to China in 2011 as NPR's Shanghai bureau chief. China was now the world's second largest economy, Shanghai's skyline dwarfed Manhattan's, but police were still chucking people in labor camp with no due process.

This story that we broadcast and published Friday tells a familiar tale of people who complain about bad treatment by local government and end up in labor camps working 12- to 16-hour days and enduring beatings.

But, like so much else here, this too may be changing. With the growth of the Internet and a freer press, public opinion has been galvanized against the camps. The government says it wants to "reform" the system. Some think officials may even shut it down.

"I think it will probably be abolished, because the majority of government people support abolition," said Wang Gongyi, a retired Ministry of Justice researcher. "The core problem is decisions are made arbitrarily. Good people can be easily wronged."

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