Spare a thought for the 900 undergraduates at China’s Central Institute of Correctional Police currently studying for degrees in ‘re-education through labour’.
Better than spending three years qualifying for a diploma in Media Studies, you might suggest? Not any longer, unfortunately. On November 15 the Communist Party announced that it intends to abolish labour camps of this type, rendering the qualification pretty much useless. Not that we should feel too sorry for the graduating class. They were, after all, preparing for a career in one of the most hated aspects of China’s law enforcement system. WiC can only speculate on what students did on their field trips.
Re-education through labour – known as laojiao – began in the 1950s as a quick and easy way to deal with ‘counter-revolutionaries’. People were sent to laojiao camps without trial. The police still decide who goes and the sentences can last as long as four years.
The vast majority of China’s 50,000 laojiao detainees today are petty criminals, drug addicts and prostitutes. But the camps have also been a dumping ground for awkward activists, tenacious petitioners (see WiC62) and adherents of banned religions.
In recent years public opposition to the camps has been growing after several high profile cases in which the authorities were perceived to have targeted citizens unfairly.
The two most dramatic incidents involved Ren Jianyu and Tang Hui.
Ren was a 23 year-old official from a village near the southwestern city of Chongqing who was sentenced to two years of re-education through labour in 2011. His crime was reposting messages critical of the municipal government – then headed by Bo Xilai – on the popular instant messaging website QQ.
Tang was sentenced to 18 months of laojiao last August for protesting at what she saw as police corruption. This involved a hideous case in which her daughter was kidnapped and forced into prostitution at the age of 11. The mother claimed the police refused to investigate the case and that later they forged evidence to help protect the men behind the girl’s abduction and rape.
Both Tang and Ren were released after a public outcry.
There might be another reason why the system is now being axed, and that is the personal view of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Xi is said to despise the laojiao because his father, Xi Zhongxun, was put through its harsher cousin – the reform-though-labour system, or laogai – after he was sacked as vice premier in 1962. An article by Reuters recently quoted an unnamed friend of his as saying: “Xi Jinping loathes re-education through labour.” Then there was another article written by Xi’s younger brother, Xi Yuanping – quoted the Beijing Times last month – that described the joy the brothers felt when their father returned home 16 years after being purged.
Shutting down China’s 350 laojiao camps also strengthens Xi’s effort to bolster the rule of law in China – a message the government is keen to promote as part of a wider package of reforms approved at the Third Plenum earlier this month.
Last week, the Supreme Court also used its brand new Sina Weibo account to remind lower courts that confessions extracted through torture cannot be admitted as evidence (a gentle reminder, no doubt) and also announced more stringent rules for applying the death penalty.
While the media hailed the decision to end the laojiao system, there was uncertainty as to when the camps will actually close. Some forecast the necessary law won’t be passed till March when the National People’s Congress meets.
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