Stanely Lubman, The Wall Street Journal
It has come to this: the arbitrary system of police detention known as laodong jiaoyang (often abbreviated as laojiao), or re-education through labor, has fallen so far out of favor that one China police chief cited the virtues of dissent for patriotic purposes to make a case for ending it. Growing criticism of this decades-old practice is encouraging. But if official statements aren’t accompanied by meaningful legal reform, police will likely keep locking up minor offenders at will under various forms of house arrest.
Chinese police have used laojiao since 1957 to imprison people in labor camps for up to four years–without involvement of the courts–not only for criminal offences but for drug use, membership in officially banned churches, aggressive petitioning and expression of dissent. Laojiao is distinct from the more serious confinement of convicted criminals in “labor reform,” (laodong gaige), which is administered by the courts. According to the Ministry of Justice’s research office, 60,000 individuals are now confined in the system. An additional 200,000 are confined for compulsory drug treatment. Estimates by human rights groups are higher.
Recent statements by officials in Guangdong province as well as a deputy director of the China Law Society in Beijing give hope to the idea that the significant legal reform of ending laojiao will be a priority of the new leadership. The practice is increasingly resented by the public. An October Xinhua report stated that laojiao would be reformed, commenting that “with the development of society and the legal system its defects have become more and more evident.” In early January, Meng Jianzhu, secretary of the CCP Central Committee’s Politics and Law Commission, announced that laojiao would be ended in 2013. Soon thereafter, the report disappeared from the Internet. As discussions have mounted in the social media, Maya Wang, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, reported that Xinhua had referred to the “reform” of laojiao in a manner that seemed to dilute the original report.
Despite the apparent retreat by Beijing, senior officials in Guangdong have openly advocated abolition of this widely criticized police power. The Jan. 30 issue of the Dui Hua Foundation’s Human Rights Journal has translated and reported on a series of recently published articles in the local media on the subject. The head of the Guangdong Department of Justice, which oversees the prisons and laojiao camps in the province, is quoted as saying that “all preparatory work” has been completed to enable the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress to approve “cessation,” which would mean that there would be no further detentions and current prisoners would be released when their terms end.
The police chief and also deputy mayor of Guangzhou, Xie Xiaodan, is quoted as saying that he “fully supports abolition.” Xie also said administrative detention should not be used to punish critics of the party and government. Notably, another newspaper article said “[Xie] views expression of criticism as a fundamental human right” and that he further quoted a statement widely misattributed to Thomas Jefferson: “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.” Whether Jefferson said it or not, quoting and approving the statement is hardly the kind of speech that is expected from a high-ranking Chinese police official. Xie went on to say that criticism “should be a positive force for promoting the nation and society.”
Another comment, published in a Xian newspaper and translated in the Human Rights Journal, is an emotional denunciation of laojiao as a “poisonous thorn within China’s legal system.” The article goes on to say that “there is no way [to deal with] the odious stench and clearly wicked nature of a draconian law, but to abolish it in one stroke.”
This all sounds promising, but what could replace laojiao? Police chief Xie stated that “more study” is needed to decide how minor offenders should be treated. Hopefully, reform won’t just wind up being a less extensive system of administrative detention, but a genuine advance toward strengthening the rule of law. The CNN report noted above quoted a Chinese lawyer on the crucial issues: ”If the law, no matter in what form, still gives police the final say, or makes no room for powerful checks and balances from the judiciary, it will still share the essence of the laojiao system.”
Various forms of house arrest and detention are specified in the Revised Criminal Procedure Law, which came into effect Jan. 1. They could well increase if laojiao ends. Article 73 of the revised law authorizes the police to detain accused persons at their residence under “residential surveillance” for up to six months and requires the police to notify relatives, but not anyone else, so lawyers are excluded. However, a clause in the same article authorizes confinement at a place other than the defendant’s residence if “crimes endangering state security, crimes of terrorism and particularly serious crimes of bribery” are involved. Notice need not be given at all if it would “impede” the investigation. Could this wind up being laojiao 2.0?
In one case translated in the Human Rights Journal, the police in a town in Hunan province detained a man who refused to stop asking questions about the alleged suicide of his friend, a longtime political dissident who died while in police custody. Authorities detained him in a hotel without notifying anyone of the location. This appears to be the first published report of confinement at a place other than the accused’s residence under the new law. Other unlawful confinements, like black jails, continue. How often will residential surveillance on suspicion of “endangering state security” be used? Without strict controls on police practice, it will be difficult to assess whatever reform of laojiao is enacted.
The appearance of stern criticism of laojiao is cause for hope, even though some lawyers and citizens remain skeptical about the extent of reform. The comments discussed here do suggest that policy seems to be moving in favor of reform of laojiao. However, even if that occurs, Human Rights Watch researcher Nicholas Bequelin rightly argues that “regardless of which route is chosen, any improvements on paper might be quickly reversed in practice if not accompanied by more comprehensive legal reforms.”