China to Close Notorious Re-education-Through-Labor Camps

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Ed Jones / AFP / Getty Images

A photo taken on April 29, 2013 shows a general view of the Zhuzhou Baimalong Labor Camp in Hunan province

First, the good news: China has announced its intentions to abolish its re-education-through-labor program that has been used to lock up everyone from human-rights campaigners and religious activists to citizens who dare to complain about their mistreatment by local bureaucrats. On the evening of Nov. 15, China’s official Xinhua News Agency said the termination of the re-education-through-labor system, which was among a raft of reforms to come out of the Communist Party’s Third Plenum meeting earlier this month, was “part of a major effort to protect human rights.”

Laojiao, as re-education through labor is known in Mandarin, was supposedly designed in 1957 to punish minor offenders whose cases might otherwise clog up the court system. But the system expanded into something that even Xinhua, the government mouthpiece, labeled a “controversial correction system” that could detain anyone for up to four years with nary a trial.

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The laojiao network is believed to have incarcerated some 190,000 offenders at one time, according to a 2009 U.N. Human Rights Council report, with public-security officials given the power to condemn people to hard labor at a prison farm or factory. (Last year, a Communist Party–linked daily put the number of laojiao detainees at 60,000 and noted that some inmates had been paid as little as $1.30 a month for their toil.) Particularly egregious abuses of the system have been covered by Chinese media, including the labor-camp sentencing of a woman who protested the light sentence given to the men who raped her 11-year-old daughter and then sold her into prostitution.

Xinhua reported that the 60-point policy directive emanating from the Third Plenum also contained “a number of other promises to improve human rights in the judicial system.” China “will work to ban extorting confessions through torture and physical abuse,” the state news agency said, and the government aims to reduce “the number of crimes subject to the death penalty ‘step by step.’”

Now the not-so-good news: even when re-education through labor is abolished, other methods exist to silence those who threaten the Chinese state. A shadowy system of black jails operates on the margins of Chinese justice. Dissidents have also endured forced stints at mental hospitals and drug-rehabilitation centers. People can disappear for months at a time without formal charges ever being made.

Even when activists are funneled through the normal judicial system, China’s courts are hardly models of judicial integrity. Trumped-up charges can be flung at those who express controversial viewpoints — a particularly common tactic is to prosecute whistle-blowers for disturbing public order. Other labor camps will still exist, even after laojiao disappears. No one is quite sure what the “community correction” system, which is to be introduced as re-education through labor is phased out, will entail. Will long spells of detention without trial still be allowed?

Nevertheless, even longtime critics of the Chinese government’s human-rights record managed to sound a positive note. “The Chinese government has finally responded to years of international and domestic criticism,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, “by announcing it will abolish re-education through labor.”

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