China votes to abolish notorious re-education camps

Rights activists are uncertain whether the decision to end a system of detention without trial at forced labor camps is sign of a major change, or merely a cosmetic step.

REUTERS/John Rudwich
People walk outside a labor camp in Kunming, Yunnan province in November. On Saturday, China's leaders abolished the notorious labor camps where inmates were incarcerated without charges or trials. Now some wonder whether the camps will be replaced with other forms of detention.

“Re-education through labor” is dead. But does that mean long live “custody and education?”

On Saturday, China’s parliament abolished the country’s most notorious labor camps, ending a 55-year-old system that had locked away millions of minor offenders, religious believers and political troublemakers without charge or trial.

Human rights activists and legal scholars welcomed the move. But they worry that the Chinese authorities may now resort more often to other, lesser known detention systems that still allow the police to lock people up without putting them through the courts.

“If the police don’t have re-education through labor to punish and warehouse troublemakers, they will use other methods,” predicts Nicolas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based researcher with Human Rights Watch.

These alternatives range from “custody and education,” normally reserved for sex workers and their clients, to compulsory detoxification centers for drug abusers, to “legal education classes” where government critics can be held incommunicado for days or months.

The National People’s Congress announced Saturday it had ratified a government decision to abolish “re-education through labor,” a system that Chinese paramount leader Mao Zedong introduced in 1957 to deal with “counter-revolutionaries” and “class enemies.”

That system morphed into a network of more than 300 forced labor camps where the police could send anyone for as long as four years without trial. They mostly comprised petty offenders, but also included Falun Gong and other religious activists, political dissidents and, most controversially, petitioners drawing attention to official wrongdoing.

The camps held 160,000 inmates at the end of 2008, according to the last available Justice Ministry figures.

Public outrage

The system was illegal under Chinese law and the government had been seeking to change it for a decade. The government finally was forced to act by widespread public anger last year when the mother of an 11- year old girl who had been raped was sent to a labor camp for lobbying publicly for the death penalty for her daughter’s attackers.

“The system was designed to maintain social order, prevent and reduce crimes by reforming people who committed minor offenses but were not punishable by the penal code,” said a recent editorial published by the state-run Xinhua news agency. “It did play an important role in maintaining social order in specific periods, however, with the development of society and the legal system, its defects have become more and more evident.”

“It was a pretty major tool of social control,” says Joshua Rosenzweig, a legal expert on Chinese human rights. “Its abolition is clearly significant. But there are unanswered questions about what comes next.”

Wang Xixin, a law professor at Peking University, is also wondering about that. “This is a victory for the legal system,” he says, but “it’s a first step. The second step is to respect constitutional norms, legal principles and individual rights.”

Whether the Chinese government is ready to take that step is uncertain.

“I don’t view this as a fundamentally rights-based decision,” says Mr. Rosenzweig. “It was utilitarian; the system had become more troublesome than useful” in the face of public opposition.

Stability first

Social stability is still the government’s top political priority, and local officials had come to rely on “re-education through labor” as a quick and easy way of disposing of troublemakers. How will they deal with them now?

One way, suggests Mr. Bequelin, would be to send them away to “custody and education” centers, which is where sex workers and their clients are punished without the need for a judicial order. They can be kept for up to two years.

The largest group of people detained without trial in China is made up of drug abusers; over 100,000 of them are undergoing compulsory treatment in “rehabilitation centers” which are often housed in former “re-education through labor” camps. They can be held for up to three years.

Human rights groups have noticed a recent increase in the use of “legal education classes” to get “undesirable elements” off the streets. These classes, held in disused schools, former army barracks and similar locations, are not meant to be custodial. But their “students” are sometimes held against their will for months, according to a report this year by “Dui Hua," a US-based human rights organization.

Tibetans who have visited Dharamsala, the Indian town where the Dalai Lama lives, Falun Gong adherents, Christian religious activists and petitioners are among the target groups for such police-run “education.”

It is likely, Prof. Wang suggests, that “the police will attempt to re-invent a new form of ‘re-education through labor’” because they have found it “an efficient way to deal with certain individuals.”

But he does not believe they will prevail. “It will be very difficult…to put old wine in new bottles,” he argues, “because times have changed in China” and the government is growing more attentive to legal niceties.

It remains to be seen whether that is more than “window dressing,” says Rosenzweig. “What comes next could radically color our perception of this abolition,” he argues. “And there are very few signals about what the future might hold.”

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