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Freedom from Chinese labor camp comes thanks to leader's downfall

Bo Gu/NBC News Beijing

Chinese blogger Fang Hong

BEIJING -- Westerners spreading Christmas cheer with their holiday lights last year probably didn’t realize that some of the warm glow came courtesy of a prison labor camp in China, and partially thanks to a former inmate named Fang Hong.

After serving a year making Christmas lights in grueling conditions, Fang Hong was released on April 24 from the Drug Rehabilitation and Re-Education-Through-Labor Center in China’s southwestern mega-city of Chongqing.

Fang’s crime? Before their fall, he criticized Wang Lijun and Bo Xilai, two formally powerful Chongqing officials, now with their own legal problems.

Wang is the ex-police chief of Chongqing, who fled to the American consulate in Chengdu for protection in February, allegedly after a fall-out with Bo.

Ed Flanagan / NBC News

A crowd gathers around Fang Hong in Chongqing to hear his story.

Bo is the former Party Secretary of Chongqing, who had been a hot contender for one of China’s most powerful political positions on the standing committee of the Communist Party's politburo, but is now under investigation for corruption. His current whereabouts are unknown.

Thin and energetic, 45-year-old Fang has never been shy about speaking out. Before his imprisonment, he worked at the Fuling District Forestry Bureau in Chongqing, but spent most of his spare time writing blogs that challenged wasteful public spending and criticizing government corruption.

It is unclear whether a post he wrote last April was the last straw. In it, he mocked a lawsuit that implicated Li Zhuang, a lawyer who defended a businessman during Bo’s controversial crackdown on gangs started in 2009. While defending the businessman, Li himself drew criticism and was accused of inciting perjury. 

“Bo Xilai took a dump, and asked Wang Lijun to eat it,” Fang wrote. “Wang passed the dump to the public prosecutor, and public prosecutor passed it to the court. The court then passed it to Li Zhuang. Li’s lawyer said, Li is not hungry. Whoever took the dump can eat it.”

City divided by disgraced Communist leader's legacy

The mocking scatological references obviously irritated someone within the police force, who then summoned Fang on the same evening that the blog post was published.

The murder of an English business man and corruption scandal, involving one of the China's most powerful men, has gripped the country. NBC's Ian Williams reports.

Fang was told by police to delete his post. He did, but his ordeal had just begun.

The next day, Fang received a summons again from the Chongqing police. He refused to go, but soon found his home surrounded by more than 20 policemen and a fire truck. The standoff lasted a whole day.

Fang was detained, and four days later received a written decision without trial, sentencing him to one year in a labor re-education prison for “spreading rumors and disturbing social order.”

Fang’s son and his girlfriend were also forced to “take a vacation” to prevent them from talking to lawyers and journalists.

Fang told NBC News he had to work about 10 hours every day, including weekends. He said he was locked in the prison along with about 1,000 other inmates. He shared a room with 11 others, most of whom were serving sentences for petty crimes such as gambling, fighting, stealing a neighbor’s chicken, or taking lewd photos.

Fang said his job was to weld Christmas light bulbs for a Shenzhen-based company called Kingland Lighting, and also screw in wires for notebooks for another company, Chongqing Baogen. He also made straws for Fuling Taiji Group for its health drinks. Kingland’s website says it exports its Christmas lights to Europe.

Fang made 8 Yuan a month, about of $1.27. He told NBC News he was not allowed to eat meat and had no connections with anyone on the other side of the iron bars. A chain smoker, Fang said he eased his nicotine withdrawal thanks to a cellmate who smuggled in cigarettes for him. Chinese prisons allow inmates to smoke, but Fang had been stripped of this privilege.

In February, a lawyer who came to see Fang told him Wang and Bo were in trouble.

“The whole labor camp was in ecstasy,” said Fang. “Everyone was jubilant and saying, the oppressive official is now a traitor! The red song singer is a traitor!”

On April 24, Fang was finally released.

What did it feel like to regain his freedom? Fang simply shook his head and calmly said: “Nothing. I have no feeling. Nothing is too shocking in this country. Unfortunately, I was born in China.”

With the help of a few lawyers, Fang is now suing the Education-through-Labor Office of Chongqing, demanding that his conviction be overturned and asking for compensation.

Whether his case will be heard by the Chongqing's Third Intermediate Court is uncertain. Pu Zhiqiang, one of the lawyers fighting for Fang, told NBC News he’s optimistic.

“If the court rejects his case, it shows its cowardice to the whole world. It tells people the court cannot meet a citizen’s expectations,” Pu said.

Fang and his lawyers hope that by making his case known to the world, China will one day abolish the decades-long re-education through labor system.

“We should pursue the answer to one question: Is a labor camp legal?” said Pu. “Is it based on laws? It’s so brutal and completely up to some individual’s decision to arrest anyone, without trail and any legal procedure. Victims have no way to help themselves. It’s against the Chinese constitution and international laws. The labor camp system should be permanently abolished.”

(NBC News contacted Chongqing Third Intermediate Court on May 15. The court confirmed Fang's case will be heard but declined to give more comments at the moment.)

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