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Documentary Depicts Horrors in Juvenile RTL Camp in Late 1950s

April 12, 2013

According to a review essay by Ai Xiaoming (艾晓明), a professor at Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou and a rights activist, a newly completed documentary film by Xie Yihui (谢贻卉 )  reveals that 4,000-5,000 minors, boys and girls, suffered inhuman treatment when they were interned in a Sichuan Reeducation-Through Labor camp in the late 1950s and early 1960s. All were made to do manual labor and suffer protracted starvation. As many as 12 children died in a single day.

Titled Juvenile Laborers Confined in Dabao (大堡小劳教), the film documents the investigation by journalist Zeng Boyan (曾伯炎), a former adult inmate in the Shaping Farm RTL Camp, E’bian County, Sichuan Province, 35 kilometers from the juvenile camp, Dabao (大堡), a satellite of the Shaping Camp. Zeng tracked down many survivors of Dabao, who recount how they worked, how they slept, and how they survived the Great Famine (1958-1962). When children died of starvation, doctors were only allowed to put down “multi-organ failure” as the cause of death. They describe their indifference to death because they faced it so frequently.

Ai Xiaoming calls the documentary of “extraordinary significance,” as evidence of historical crimes and as testament against the legitimacy of the RTL system. In summing up the crimes of Dabao, Ai says, “In an environment where people ate people, the persecuted were themselves totally robbed of their humanity, turned into one another’s executioners.”

Trailer of Juvenile Laborers Confined in Dabao

Director: Xie Yihui
Length: 104 minutes
Subtitles: English, Simplified Chinese
Public screening: May 1, 2013, Taipei. Click here for details (Chinese only).

Human Rights In China has translated Ai Xiaoming’s essay into English. Below is an excerpt from the essay. For the full text of this English translation, go to:

Excerpted from:

Mourning the Deceased on Tomb-Sweeping Day:
On Xie Yihui’s new documentary film,
Juvenile Laborers Confined in Dabao

Ai Xiaoming

February 28, 2013
[English translation by Human Rights in China]

By tracing the investigator’s footsteps, we see how this tragedy began. In the 1950s, several thousand children were interned here as the result of China’s adopting the Soviet Union’s practice of reforming wayward children. These children—ages ten to 17—were incarcerated for various reasons, but most weren’t criminals. Many committed small trespasses, were the products of parental neglect, or their parents believed that RTL would provide an opportunity for their children to learn how to work. Others were there because public security organs needed to fill quotas for catching criminals. These children were subjected to inhuman persecution at the Dabao camp, and many died there without anyone knowing.

The horrors we know about the RTL system mostly come from the experiences of adults. But this film reveals the origins of this system. It was established by the State Council during the height of the Anti-Rightist rectification campaign in 1957, when many politically labeled Rightists were sent to RTL camps. But the scope was expanded to include other so-called bad elements. The RTL system that targeted minors was characterized particularly by confusion and illegality because it blurred the distinction between crime and non-crime. It seems that in an effort to reeducate neglected children, it also obscured the line between welfare and punishment. But from the recollections of those involved, the system, from its inception, emphasized crime and punishment. Even when children were on the verge of starving to death and their parents begged to have them released, they were unable to get their children back because the authorities said they were criminals and had not been sufficiently reformed.

The leaders of the People’s Republic of China believed that the social environment must be pure: there must not be homeless children or any minor offenses such as petty theft by juveniles. For this reason, under the mantel of Reeducation-Through-Labor, forcible detention was initiated against the poor and those who lacked resources. In terms of food and shelter, the children who were tricked and snatched into RTL camps lived in conditions not much different from those in Nazi concentration camps. Although there were no crematoriums, the Great Famine of the late 1950s-early 1960s made these children suffer a fate worse than incineration: protracted starvation.

For the full text of this English translation, go to: