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Labour isn’t working

The re-education through labour system (known in Chinese as laojiao) is a form of punishment with “Chinese characteristics”. It can be handed down without a trial or prosecution and defence. The public security authorities can deprive a citizen of personal freedoms in the name of the so-called re-education through labour committee and impose up to four years of forced labour and ideological education at camps designed for the purpose. In 1991, China’s State Council published a white paper, The Condition of Human Rights in China, claiming that laojiao was an administrative punishment, not a criminal one.

The Chinese government based the system on the experience of the Soviet Union. In 1957, the State Council issued the Decision on the Re-education Through Reform Question. It ruled that the government would gather and discipline “counter-revolutionaries” who could not be sentenced, and other “bad elements”, to prevent them from “spreading feelings of dissatisfaction” or “sabotage”. This is considered the beginning of laojiao.

As the class struggle intensified, “rightists” were included as targets for re-education through labour. After the “Reform and Opening Up” in 1979, the government included petty offenders who could not be criminally sanctioned. Over the past decade, more and more dissidents and people who have petitioned the authorities have been re-educated. The system is increasingly becoming the method of choice for “maintaining stability”.

The Chinese government has never published annual numbers of people re-educated through labour. The Public Security Bureau’s Regulation on State Secrets and the Specific Scope of Each Level of Secrets in Public Security Work specified that “unpublished overall national, provincial, autonomous regional and municipal status and statistics of re-education through labour and juvenile discipline are state secrets”. But, in 2003, the ministry of justice, in its Strategic Plan for Aids Prevention and Control, revealed that at the end of 2001, there were 340 re-education through labour camps in the country. Altogether, they enrolled 317,000 people for re-education, and the average re-education period was a year and seven months.

Re-education through labour cases are a sensitive area for the media. Either they cannot report on them, or they have to self-censor reports strictly. With the ubiquitous use in China of the “we media”, such as microblogs, many very absurd cases of re-education through labour have been spread widely on the internet.

Two of these cases are from Hunan Province. Tang Hui, from the city of Yongzhou, the mother of an “11-year-old girl forced into prostitution”, was taken away on the morning of 2 August 2012 by about a dozen special police. On that day, they decided to re-educate her for one year because she had petitioned the authorities, accusing the police of “disturbing public order” by shielding a criminal. From Changsha, 25 people who had been evicted from their properties knelt before the national flag in Tiananmen Square in the summer of 2011. Twenty-one of them were accused of “causing chaos and disturbing the social order of Tiananmen Square” and were re-educated through labour. Four of them were sentenced.


Two other cases are from Chongqing and date from when Bo Xilai, the now-disgraced politician, was in power. Two Chongqing citizens who did not know each other, Fang Hong and Peng Hong, commented or forwarded cartoons on a microblog, and the authorities judged it as sarcasm and slander of the “red-song-singing and anti-mafia campaign”. They were re-educated through labour for one and two years, respectively. A relative of Fang Hong’s had asked the human rights activist Xu Zhihong for legal assistance. He rushed to Chongqing, only to discover that the relative had been disappeared. It was only after Bo Xilai’s downfall that these two cases could be appealed and rectified.

There is continual discussion about such cases in every circle of society, with harsh criticism. However, considering “stability as the top priority”, the stability maintenance authorities of the central government want to preserve re-education through labour as a tactic for social control that is simple in procedure and powerful as a deterrent, as do the local governments. They are opposed to reforms of the system. This was also the main reason why the draft of the “Illegal Behaviour Rectification Law”, which is a plan to replace the system, has been stalled for eight years by the standing committee of the National People’s Congress.

Li Fangping is 38 years old. He graduated from the Graduate School of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences with an LLM degree. He is a lawyer at the Beijing Ruifeng Law Firm and specialises in criminal defence. In 2007, along with 68 other Chinese scholars and lawyers, including Mao Yushi, he signed and published an open letter to the State Council calling for abolition of the re-education through labour system.

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Ai Weiwei guest-edit