Is This Really the End of Re-Education Through Labor?

On January 7, state media reported a statement made by Meng Jianzhu – the secretary of the CCP Central Committee’s Commission for Political and Legal Affairs – at a national judicial conference: that China’s re-education through labor system (RTL) was expected to come to an end by the closing of 2013. An article from The Economist covering Meng’s recent statement quickly outlines the controversial RTL system:

Established in 1957 under Mao, the system (known as laojiao) has been used as an easy way for police, on their own authority, to imprison people. Official statistics from the endof 2008 show that 160,000 people were imprisoned in 350 laojiao facilities nationwide. (Laojiao camps are different from other camps formerly known as laogai, whose inmates have been through the judicial system.) Foreign pressure groups say there are more.

Dissidents have been among those imprisoned this way, but only as a very small proportion of the total. Many more are suspected drug addicts, prostitutes or petitioners. House-church Christians and adherents to officially banned spiritual groups, such as Falun Gong, have also been dealt with through laojiao camps. The lack of oversight has left the police and camp operators free to abuse the system to settle personal vendettas or profit from the work of prisoners.

After Meng’s statement, some expressed excitement while others aired their doubts. Microblog coverage of and commentary on the declaration quickly began disappearing, and Xinhua issued a story “watering down” Meng’s sweeping statement, fanning skepticism of the abolishment that Meng had seemingly outlined. CNN reports:

After media outlets confirmed the news with officials who attended the meeting Meng spoke at, the original articles reporting the decision vanished from the Internet. A subsequent Xinhua news story watered down Meng’s statement, committing the government only to “advancing reforms” of RTL — which is old news — a long-stated but never-implemented goal.

[…]The tepid Xinhua announcement promising to “reform” RTL suggests that instead of abolition, the government will merely tinker at the margins of the existing system. Fears this might be the case derive from the August 2012 announcement of a pilot scheme in four cities. Few details are available, except that the name of the system was revised from Re-education to “Education and Correction,” and minor constraints on the police’s ability to impose these punishments were established.

Click through to see CNN’s accompanying video interview with RTL-reform activists.

The South China Morning Post ran an opinion piece from NYU professor Jerome Cohen, in which the seasoned scholar of Chinese law probes the true meaning of Meng’s statement, determining that the RTL as we know will not be disappearing by the year’s end:

What did Meng mean? There are many possibilities. Did he simply mean that, in the exercise of its discretion, the police would at least temporarily suspend sending a couple of hundred thousand defenceless people to labour camps each year? Did he also mean that, in the coming months, the more than 300 existing re-education through labour sites would be emptied of their current occupants.

Or did he mean even less – that the government would only change the name of this notorious punishment but keep it in substance? Ever since its formal establishment in 1957, the police have lobbied tenaciously to retain this instrument of control, which subjects individuals to long-term detention in the name of social “harmony” without bothering to seek their indictment by prosecutors and trial, conviction, sentencing and appellate review by courts.

One thing Meng’s statement plainly did not foreshadow is the end of labour camps. Contrary to some media reports, he dealt solely with the “non-criminal” or “administrative” punishment known as “re-education through labour” dispensed by the police alone, not with the criminal punishment to which many offenders are sentenced by courts. Many convicted criminals will continue to be sent to labour camps or conventional prisons.

An article from The Atlantic echoes Cohen’s sentiment – that despite Meng’s assertion, labor camps will not be abolished anytime soon. What may instead be on the immediate agenda is the institution of a substitute system, one that may not encompass the hopes of the many who want to see the current system abolished:

For those who support reforming the system, the truly knotty question is “how.” Some argue that all criminal justice can and thus should be meted out within the framework of the Criminal Law (for felonies) and the Security Administration Punishment Law (for misdemeanors). Others insist that a reformed version of the laojiao system is still needed to fill the gaps between the Criminal Law and the Security Administration Punishment Law. According to China Radio International (CRI) Online (@国际在线), the National People’s Congress and its standing committee prefer the latter. It is already on the legislative agenda to institute a new system to replace laojiao, tentatively titled the “Rehabilitation Act for Illegal Activities.”

In an interview with CRI, Hong Daode, professor at the China University of Political Science and Law, explained the People’s Congress’ reasoning. “There are criminals in our society who, if handled by the Security Administration Punishment Law, cannot be fully educated and rehabilitated, yet the Criminal Law is overly harsh for them. Drug users are an example. So we need something in between. ”

It follows that the oft-discussed question of whether authorities are calling for laojiao to be “reformed” or “ended” makes no substantive difference. Intead, the key is ensuring that the Rehabilitation Act, once implemented, will not leave loopholes for abuse as the laojiao system has done. Lawyer Si Weijiang (@斯伟江) pointed out that the new Act must integrate sufficient checks and balances: “If the law, no matter in what form, still gives police the final say, or makes no room for powerful checks and balances from the judiciary, it will still share the essence of the laojiao system.” Mr. Si adds that it must also be clear to whom the Rehabilitation law applies.

Caixin’s Hu Shuli also says that to effectively address overarching concerns about the LTR system, police power must be reined in:

Unchecked police power is one reason the labor re-education system has persisted to this day. The case of Sun Zhigang is instructive. Outrage over the death of the migrant worker in 2003 led to the end of the administrative measure of detaining and repatriating people without a household registration in the city. Yet it did not weaken police power.

Thus, today, it is not enough to demand a stop to re-education through labor; the police’s wings must be clipped and the rule of law must function effectively.

Opinion is divided on how to end the system and what better system could replace it. Some scholars have suggested the introduction of a rehabilitation bill or a communal corrections bill. Yet others say such bills should not be linked with the labor re-education system.

[…]As with the move 10 years ago to end the illegal detention of migrants, the effort today to end re-education through labor is intended to rein in police power. Thus, we must be alert to how police officials might reassert their power in other ways. This means imposing more effective checks on them.

For more on the re-education through labor system, see prior CDT coverage.


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