Will China end prison labor camps?

'Reeducation through labor' has long allowed China to control dissent while circumventing the legal system. Critics worry about a cosmetic change that may make it harder to monitor human rights violations.

China appears poised to end an inglorious history of labor camps, and the practice of “reeducation through labor.”

This week, Beijing officially elliptically leaked that they may reform the decades-old system, which gives police and other officials power to detain people up to four years without charge or having to go through the legal system.

It appears that mounting dissatisfaction among citizens and lawyers with justice in China has brought about a potential moment in the Middle Kingdom, and new leaders in Beijing are giving it some attentionYet whether China will seize this moment and conduct real reform, close the camps, and stop incarcerating people without trial is unclear.

One concern, say longtime China justice watchers, is that Beijing may merely retool the policy on labor camps. That is, officials will create new legal measures that appear improved, but that change little – except to make it more difficult for monitors to claim or prove human rights violations.

China admits to a network of some 310 labor camps with 190,000 inmates who are forced to work, often in grueling conditions – sent there without due process or a judge.

Reeducation through labor has been used to control dissent and political prisoners. When the camps were started in the 1950s, they held “counter-revolutionaries” on ideological charges. But Beijing stopped that in the late '90s.

Today, the types of people who may end up in a camp for years are democracy organizers, upstart bloggers, underground church ministers, unhappy lawyers, members of the Falun Gong sect, Tibetan monks or ethnic Uighers with the temerity to protest, or those deemed too outspoken and thus threats to the “harmony” of China’s society.

Labor camps may have been necessary in the past, said Chinese Ministry of Justice Chief Meng Jianzhu Monday, but in today’s China, “conditions have changed.”

So this week when Beijing started talking about ending “forced labor” – those words echoed loudly in China watch circles. 

“This is a big measure if it really happens,” notes Nicolas Bequelin, a justice expert with Human Rights Watch based in Hong Kong, and author of many reports on conditions in China. “It is driven by the top and resisted by police and public security bureaus.”

What concerns Mr. Bequelin: “We may end up seeing a less overtly abusive system, one that has a different name and some small changes, but one that in the end makes the uprooting of abuse more difficult.”

To be sure, compared with the old Soviet Siberian wasteland labor camps chronicled by Alexander Solzhenitzyn, where inmates died in the snows by the thousands, Chinese camps are a kind of “Gulag-lite.” But they are also plenty grim. Torture is sanctioned, medical treatment withheld, and grueling work enforced. Beatings and other inhumane conditions are overseen by often-corrupt police officials.

“Chinese authorities will need to replace “reeducation by labor” with something,” says Joshua Rosenzweig, a Hong Kong-based expert formerly with the Dui Hua group. “But what will it be? That is the question.”

The cornerstone of any justice system is that those accused by police must go to court where evidence is produced. In the case of the forced labor camps in China, police arrest and act as judge and jury without a trial. Currently, the camps are inspected by the Ministry of Justice, which happens to be the same ministry that operates them. 

Will Chinese police give up some of their current power?

Can Chinese authorities start moving away from a long-held obsession with “stability” – and begin to acknowledge individual rights as more significant?

What concerns analysts like Mr. Rosenzweig is that there has not yet been a fundamental change of heart or spirit in Beijing behind the coming change.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to Will China end prison labor camps?
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today