China: Re-education Through Labor Finally At an End?

By Ariel Hsiung, Assistant Contributor

Last month, Chinese authorities made the momentous announcement to advance reforms of its re-education through labor system (“RTL”), a highly controversial system that detains people for minor offense for up to four years without trial. Thereafter, Guangdong province in southern China followed up with a statement that it is planning to end RTL within the year. However, the Chinese government has since revealed no further details about what it intends to do with the system.

RTL is a labor camp system that was first established by the Chinese legislature in 1957 to rehabilitate those who did not commit crimes serious enough to be sent to the official criminal system, but, according to Robert Bejesky’s article Falun Gong and Re-Education Through Labor: Traditional Rehabilitation for the Misdirected to Protect Societal Stability Within China’s Evolving Criminal Justice System, are nevertheless in need of “thought reform” so that they can safely be brought back into society. It was modeled after the Soviet Gulag in that citizens can be arbitrarily arrested and detained by police without a trial hearing. Veron Mei-Ying Huang, in Improving Human Rights in China: Should Re-Education through Labor Be Abolished?, noted that the RTL was originally designed for four categories of individuals: (1) counter-revolutionaries; (2) those who violate public order; (3) those that do not engage in manual labor, and (4) people that engage in minor crimes. Overtime, the system has evolved to target drug addicts, prostitutes and followers of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, whose crimes are considered too minor to warrant a court trial. As of 2008, an estimated 160,000 people were held in 350 labor centers nationwide, according to the Chinese Ministry of Justice.

The system raises some serious due process and human rights concerns. The first is that RTL provides no legal remedy for alleged offenders: they have no right to trial or to counsel. This type of “arbitrary detention” violates Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which provides that “anyone who is deprived of his liberty by arrest or detention shall be entitled to take proceedings before a court.” Even though China may not be bound by ICCPR, since it has only signed but not yet ratified the treaty, this type of arbitrary detention under RTL is clearly against international human right norms and customs. A recent depiction of the harsh conditions within these camps by former detainee, activist Harry Wu, raises further human rights concerns with the way detainees are treated under RTL, such as denying detainees access to medical care and subjecting detainees to beatings.

Second, there are concerns over the “extensive use” of RTL by government agencies, turning it into a “crime control mechanism,” which is at odds with RTL’s original purpose of an informal education procedure aimed at rehabilitation. For instance, the procedure for determining an offender’s sentence is usually chosen by the police officers at their discretion, thus increasing the risk that they will abuse the RTL to circumvent existing criminal procedural requirements. Additionally, as an administrative rather than criminal institution, RTL is not subject to any of the existing “human right safeguards” under Chinese criminal law. Finally, the RTL sentence raises issues of severity: any offender sent to RTL can be imprisoned for up to four years, which is a term more severe than some ordinary criminal punishments such as fines.

Calls for reform to the system over the past few decades have finally accumulated in the Chinese government’s decision to end the practice. This move towards reform can be attributed largely to some recent cases which have garnered widespread attention and galvanized public opinion against RTL. One of the cases involved Ren Jianyu, a college graduate who was sent to RTL for a T-shirt found in his closet that said: “Freedom or death.” Public outcry over his imprisonment led local officials to reduce his two-year sentence and released him from RTL. Another notable case involved Tang Hui, a mother who was given an 18-month RTL sentence after she repeatedly protested that one of the men who had raped and forced her 11-year-old daughter into prostitution had been treated too leniently by the Chinese criminal system. Following another public backlash, officials last summer released Tang from her sentence. Responding to such increasingly negative public opinion towards RTL, the Chinese government has finally advanced reform of the system.

While activists welcome this reform, many are skeptical about the extent and scope of the change. Since Chinese authorities have remained mostly silent on the details of the reform, one can only second-guess at this point what types of changes are likely to be forthcoming. One possibility is that the system will be abolished altogether, which is the option that the Guangdong authorities advocate. Yan Zhichan, director of Guangdong Provincial Department of Justice, said that Guangdong has made preparation work to be the “leading” and “exploratory” region to stop the system and stated that if the system is abolished, those currently detained will be released after the expiration of their sentence. Other provinces may follow the Guangdong model. Nevertheless, it is the central government rather than the provincial officials who makes the ultimate decision, so it remains to be seen whether the central authorities will adopt Guandong’s proposal. On the other hand, some have advocated to keep the existing RTL system but with certain adjustments, such as passing separate legislation on RTL, authorizing courts to review RTL, and shortening terms of RTL to two years or less. Another option, iterated by Veron Mei-Ying Huang, is to incorporate RTL into the existing criminal law system so that offenders will at least have access to procedural protections under Chinese criminal law, but more often than not these procedural mechanisms are subject to official arbitrariness. Whatever reform is eventually adopted, one looming worry is that the reform will wind up being a “less extensive system of administrative detention” that does not advance the rule of law and human rights in China. Accordingly, even if RTL is abolished or replaced by a system of less severe detention, if the police are still given the discretion to imprison offenders without notice or trial, then these reforms may end up leading to RTL 2.0. How the Chinese government will approach this reform remains to be seen, but as of now, it has taken at least a first step in the right direction to ending this practice.