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Re-education Through Labor Reform Hits Critical Point

08-28 14:15 Caijing
The re-education through labor system, which has long been criticized for depriving citizens of their individual liberties and being able to detain suspects without trial, has reached a critical point for reform.

By staff reporters Xu Kai and Zhang Youyi, and intern Qin Xiya

A recent incident in which a mother was sentenced to a labor camp in Yongzhou, Hunan Province for petitioning for justice for her daughter, who was raped and forced into prostitution at age 11, has once again made China's re-education through labor system the target of public criticism. The public and the media, as well as academics, National People's Congress deputies and even government officials have joined the camp to call for reform or abolition of the system.

Tang Hui's daughter was brutally raped and forced into prostitution by seven men in 2006. The suspects were brought to court upon her daughter's rescue, but Tang later objected, contending there were other police officers involved who were not investigated. So for the next several years, Tang continued to petition the government, seeking justice for her daughter.

Tang's protests continued until Aug. 2, when she was sent to a labor camp by the Yongzhou re-education through labor management committee for "seriously disturbing social order." News that Tang had been sent to a labor camp spread rapidly over's China's microblogging networks, triggering a huge public backlash that lasted until her release on Aug. 10.

The system of re-education through labor, which was originally aimed at eradicating undercover counterrevolutionaries, was established by China in the 1950s by drawing on the experiences of the Soviet Union. Public security organs place suspects into detention without conviction by a court for a maximum period of four years, where they are compelled to participate in forced labor and undergo political education.

Over the years, the makeup of the inmates who are sent to labor camps has changed along with societal shifts in China.

The Ministry of Public Security issued an internal document in 1982, stipulating six categories of criminal behavior that fell under the re-education through labor system, including "minor offenders, counter-revolutionaries, anti-Party and anti-socialist elements not serious enough for criminal punishment," and "hooliganism, prostitution, theft/fraud, habitual criminals, and other crimes which don't merit criminal punishment." 

In 2005, gambling and pornographic materials-related behavior was added to the scope of the re-education through labor program. And in 2009, the Commission of Politics and Law of the CPC Central Committee officially placed "illegal petitioning" within the scope of the system.

The lack of a foundation of legitimacy has been the weak point of the re-education through labor system, which has long deprived citizens' of their personal freedoms without trial. The general consensus is that the system is "unconstitutional and illegal." In actual operation, most re-education through labor approvals are made via the legal departments at municipal public security organs, and require only a signature from relevant officials.

Over the past 10 years, calls to reform or abolish the re-education through labor system have never disappeared. In 2005, a new law meant to replace the system was included in the NPC's legislative plan. The new law would make major changes to the current labor camp system, from the decision-making process, to social management, to the scope of the program. The draft law would also give discretionary power to courts and realize judicialization of the system. However, public security departments have objected to the bill, citing the need to "maintain social order and stability." As a result, deliberations have repeatedly been shelved.

Still, the general consensus throughout society is that the system has reached a critical point in which reform or abolition must occur; the status quo can no longer be accepted.

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