BEIJING - Just like the former extrajudicial “Custody and Repatriation” procedure for moving beggars and homeless people out of Chinese cities, the Re-education Through Labor (RTL) camp system has long been criticized.
There is now a general consensus that the unjustified administrative procedures of the labor camp system should be reformed. After years of public debate, finally a signal of reform has been ushered in at the governmental level.
Last week, China’s State Council published a white paper on judicial reform. Jiang Wei, who heads the Central Judicial System Reform Leading Group Office, stated that a consensus had been reached and that the relevant administrative departments were studying a reform.
On the day following this announcement, Ren Jianyu’s appeal hearing took place. Ren is a 25-year-old college graduate who was sent to a labor camp for two years for forwarding “subversive content” on Sina Weibo – China’s Twitter-like micro blogging site.
Can the result of Ren’s appeal push forward reform of China’s labor camp system? There could be a parallel with the case of Sun Zhigang, a migrant worker who was wrongly detained, and subsequently died in detention due to savage beating. That case helped abolish of the Custody and Repatriation system.
The RTL system was created in the 1950s as a form of administrative punishment. It’s mainly used to detain people who have committed minor offenses for which criminal penalties are not justified. The concerned party is forced into re-education with the purpose of maintaining social order.
The RTL is the product of a special historical period, and at that time, it may indeed have played an important role in maintaining social order. However, since it was first implemented, the application of administrative detention has been expanding constantly. In certain cases, people can be sent to labor camps for as long as three years or even four years, without due judicial process or a trial. The evolution of this detention system has created a “rule of man” that it is totally contrary to the spirit of the rule of law. The rationality of its existence and its legitimacy have long been questioned.
The right to freedom is a basic right granted to all citizens by the Constitution. Since the judicial reform white paper raised the issue of strengthening the legal protection of human rights, the RTL -- which violates the Constitution, the Legislation Law and the Administration Punishment Law -- should be repealed. This will then establish the absolute authority of the judicial system, which guarantees Chinese citizens the inalienable right to freedom.
As for minor criminal acts, they can be incorporated into the jurisdiction of the Criminal Code and the Public Security Administration Punishment Law. The existing labor camp system often imposes a higher punishment than certain criminal penalties. For minors who have committed small offenses, a “mild community cure” can be applied. This will have a disciplinary education purpose while at the same time reducing the cost to society. We should start teaching the concepts of giving back and of public service to society, as well as nurturing the spirit of modern citizenship.
What is to be noted in particular is that the so-called “population of vexatious visits and litigations” as well as dissidents with “heterogeneity or opposition” who differentiate themselves from mainstream ideology, normal beliefs and normal behavior, are to be judged on their acts. Whether or not they have committed an offense should be decided strictly on the grounds of the facts.
If arbitration is necessary, it should be settled by a judicial settlement. If it can be solved by social reconciliation then it should be. The simplified application of RTL to “maintain stability” is to be avoided.
Our society is making progress, so the social governance should advance along with the times. We hope that the government will take this opportunity to make a historical step forward. It should have the courage to abolish the labor camp system and root out all extrajudicial system that still remains in Chinese society.
The establishment of the rule of law lies in establishing the authority of justice, and incorporating all those who have been deprived of their freedom under the scope of the judiciary.
Only two months ago, Tang Hui, a mother whose teenage daughter was forced into prostitution, was sent to re-education camp because her local authority considered her “vexatious visits and litigations” as unacceptable behavior. Tang Hui has finally been released, thanks to days of Chinese netizens’ protests and solidarity.
Ren Jianyu, on the other hand, is still imprisoned in a labor camp. We hope justice will be done sooner rather than later.