A police state of the past?
A police state of the past?
Wang Lin*

China’s notorious re-education-through-labor system, abbreviated as laojiao in Chinese, has come into the spotlight with the recent reform announcement by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress.

The system was born out of the “Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries” and the “Anti-Rightist Movement” of the Mao era. It was designed to eradicate opposition elements after the Chinese Communist Party took power in 1949. The system clearly has little to do with “labor” or “re-education.” It is all about punishment and, in certain cases, is as brutal as the harshest criminal penalties.

From a legal point of view, laojiao is not a criminal penalty because it doesn’t appear in China’s Criminal Law. Nor is it really an “administrative punishment,” as it’s most often referred to and misunderstood, since none of the seven forms of punishment in China’s Administrative Punishment Law include the laojiao.

At the same time, though, people subject to the re-education system can seek administrative reconsideration. This is the legal basis of the famous case in which Tang Hui, the mother of a 10-year-old girl raped and forced into prostitution, spent years petitioning for justice and was sentenced to re-education by the local public security bureau because she was “disturbing the social order.” The public uproar and media exposure finally forced her punishment to be revoked.

Because of cases such as Tang Hui’s, many Chinese tend to associate petitioners with the detainees of the laojiao centers. But in fact these cases make up only a small part of those held at such centers. Others are held for non-violent offenses such as prostitution, illegal drug use, and for political or religious dissent.

But it’s time to eliminate the laojiao system, which lacks any true procedural justice. Typically, a laojiao case is filed, investigated, decided and implemented arbitrarily, carried out entirely by the public security departments themselves without transparency. It’s completely out of the triangular legal structure of prosecution, defense and trial, and thus becomes a fragile “enclave” totally beyond the realm of judicial control and supervision.

Since Chinese authorities first hinted at reform of the re-education-through-labor system about two years ago, rumors have circulated about the introduction of a new law called the “Illegal Acts Correction Law” and another called the “Illegal Acts Education Act.”

In a prior piece, I expressed my worry that neither of these new acts could fall into the trap of putting old wine in new bottles. In other words, the new regulation would likely to have the same effect as the old one unless the inherent problem of arbitrary justice is solved first. Cases must go through a system of courts, instead of the police, and the related parties must enjoy the full right to a defense.

Fortunately, it seems, those earlier concerns seem to be unfounded, after all. Over the past two years, the government’s rhetoric has progressed from original “laojiao reform” to “stopping the use of laojiao,” and ultimately to the “abolition” today.

By November, places such as Zhejiang province, Hunan province and Shenzhen city had announced the disbanding of their labor centers. Others have similarly been shuttered without necessarily garnering press coverage, in the hope that a low profile will lead to a gradual repeal of the system on the technical and operational levels.

It’s worth taking a closer look at the official press statement concerning the Standing Committee of National People’s Congress review of the laojiao system: “With the increasing introduction and improvement of the Narcotics Act, the Public Security Administration Punishment Law and the Criminal Law, the offenses which used to be treated with the laojiao can all basically be punished accordingly with the existing laws.”

In brief, the clear message is that a separate and alternative re-education-through-labor system is no longer necessary.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether China says a definitive farewell to the laojiao. For the moment and from a legal viewpoint, the era of the laojiao is over. As to whether unscrupulous local officials will use other methods to retaliate against their enemies, that is sadly beyond the scope of this article.

*Wang Lin is an associate professor of the School of Law at Hainan University.

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