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In surprise, Chinese court releases mom from prison labor camp

A court in Hunan said Tang Hui’s ‘personal freedoms’ were violated when she was sent to prison for ‘reeducation through labor.’ She had spoken out against local officials.

There is something innately affirmative about a Chinese court today pulling an ordinary woman out of a prison labor camp, compensating her for damages, and requiring a Chinese state security official to apologize to her in court.

The woman is named Tang Hui. Her 11-year-old daughter was raped, abducted, and sold into prostitution several years ago. When local Hunan courts did not give the criminals a punishment harsh enough to suit Ms. Tang, she began to shout and scream. That got her plunked into a prison camp under a practice known as “reeducation through labor” – used for decades to quickly silence troublemakers or dissidents without bothering with due process or legal rights.

Yet today a court in Yongzhou, a city in Hunan, ruled that Tang’s “personal freedoms” had been violated.

That seems to many analysts a small breath of fresh air in East Asia, evidence of at least a whiff of change in China’s structure of party authority, analysts say.  

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Moreover, the Hunan court decision can’t be lost on North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, whose family dynasty next door to China has run a set of “hidden gulags” for three generations, and where some 200,000 persons are incarcerated in vile and inhumane conditions. (The UN in March authorized a three-judge panel to investigate whether North Korea camps constitute crimes against humanity.)

For much of China’s recent history, Tang would be another forgotten person. Yet her case got discovered inside China’s vast Internet and blogging classes. Her arrest as an angry mother outraged millions. She became a popular cause célèbre.

The court today freed her and gave her about $500.

The Tang victory shows among other things, the power of public opinion in a country that does not hold elections.

Chinese bloggers and some analysts feel Tang should have received more monetary compensation, that she should have been given the written apology she asked for, and that the case may not set a precedent allowing greater expansion of the right to appeal, and win.

In January, the Communist Party’s top legal authority promised to end “reeducation through labor.” The rumors were lauded by many analysts, even those who argued that Chinese authorities had not yet gone through the change of heart that would make the reforms work or stick.

Yet whether or not the Tang case was all show, or part of a propaganda push, may be of less importance. One lawyer, Yuan Yulai, quoted by blogger Josh Chin, described rulings like today’s, which has received wide attention in both official media and in the blogosphere, as “promoting an unyielding spirit. In today’s China this is especially important.”