Reeducation Through Labor in China

Reeducation through labor (laodong jiaoyang or laojiao), according to the Ministry of Public Security, is an administrative measure of reform through compulsory education designed to change offenders into people who "obey law, respect public virtue, love their country, love hard work, and possess certain standards of education and productive skills for the building of socialism." The term refers to a system of detention and punishment administratively imposed on those who are deemed to have committed minor offenses but are not legally considered criminals. Reeducation through labor —sometimes labeled rehabilitation through labor— is not to be confused with reform though labor (laodong gaizao or laogai), the complex of prisons, labor camps, and labor farms for those sentenced judicially.

The recipient of a reeducation through labor sentence has no right to a hearing, no right to counsel, and no right to any kind of judicial determination of his case.

There are five major problems with reeducation through labor: the lack of any kind of procedural restraints, the use of reeducation to incarcerate political and religious dissidents, the problems of appeal; the conditions in the camps, and the system of "retention for in-camp employment" that permits authorities to keep prisoners in the camps after the expiration of their sentences.

Statistics are difficult to come by, but according to a report by the U.N.'s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention on December 22, 1997, published after the Working Group's trip to China earlier that year, there are 230,000 persons in 280 reeducation through labor centers around the country. The figure represents more than a 50 percent increase over four years. At the end 1993, the reeducation through labor figure was 150,000.

Reeducation Through Labor Management Committees, composed of officials from the civil affairs, public security, and labor departments, are responsible for directing and administering the work of reeducation through labor and for examining and approving those who are in need of reeducation. The committees operate in provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities directly under the central government, as well as in large and medium sized cities. Different agencies and individuals, from parents to employers to the police, can recommend to the committees, through a petition process, that offenders be sent for reeducation. Public security organs are in charge of the actual labor camps, and the "people's procuratorates" supervise the activities of all agencies involved in the reeducation process.

The usual procedure is for the police acting on their own to determine a reeducation term. Sentences run from one to three years' confinement in a camp or farm, often longer than for similar criminal offenses. A term can be extended for a fourth year if, in the prison authorities' judgment, the recipient has not been sufficiently reeducated, fails to admit guilt, or violates camp discipline.

The recipient of a reeducation through labor sentence has no right to a hearing, no right to counsel, and no right to any kind of judicial determination of his case. Decisions are often hastily made. Liu Xiaobo, renowned literary critic and former professor of Chinese literature who helped negotiate the safe departure of students from Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, was seized at his home on October 7, 1996 and administratively sentenced to a three-year reeducation term the following day. As mentioned, those administratively sentenced are technically not criminals and neither they nor their children may be discriminated against when it comes to employment or school enrollment.

Article 10 of a 1982 government document called Trial Implementation Methods lists the "categories of persons" to be "taken in for reeducation through labor." Several of the categories and terms are vague. All the offenses described can be judicially prosecuted if sufficiently serious, but no specific distinction between those acts deemed minor and those which can be "pursued for criminal responsibility" has ever been made. The first category listed refers to "counterrevolutionary elements" and those who are against the communist party and socialism. Often such dissidents are held on trumped-up charges such as "hooliganism" or "disturbing the social order." Other categories include "those who associate with groups which have committed murder, robbery, rape, arson, etc."; migrants, prostitutes, and those who steal or cheat but who refuse to reform; gang members who "disturb the public order"; those who refuse to work or hinder production; and those who instigate others to commit crimes. Those not eligible for reeducation include mental patients, the blind, the deaf and dumb, the retarded, the severely ill, those who cannot take part in labor, and pregnant women or those whose children are not yet one year old and are being breast fed. Bishop Zeng Jingmu, the seventy-eight-year-old Catholic Bishop of Yujiang diocese, Jiangxi province, was sentenced to a three-year "reeducation through labor" term on March 18, 1996 for "violating administrative norms," and for "irresponsibly organizing illegal meetings," that is religious assemblies and masses not sanctioned by the government's official Chinese Catholic Church. Too old to work like other prisoners, he was held in a facility housing detainees awaiting sentencing until his release in May 1998.

The 1990 Administrative Procedure Law provides for challenges to reeducation through labor decisions by appeal to the people's court. The court has the power to order a person's release, but apparently the number of cases overturned on appeal is minuscule; and there is some evidence that a challenge may be regarded as evidence of a person's lack of amenability to reeducation. Liu Xiaobo, for example, spent five months in a reeducation camp before his appeal was even heard and denied. Liu Nianchun, a veteran labor activist who received a three-year reeducation sentence for his participation in a petition campaign at the time of the sixth anniversary of June 4, 1989, finally had an appeal hearing heard sixteen months after he "disappeared." He was permitted to meet with his lawyer once, just a few hours before the hearing; his relatives were effectively barred.

In theory, reeducation camps and reform through labor camps are significantly different. Those in reeducation are paid for their work but they must supply their own clothing and bedding. Part of an inmates' income may be used for support of their dependents or reserved for their own use after release. Inmates are to work no more than six hours a day and study no more than three, and they are entitled to eight hours' sleep each night and rest on Sundays and during festivals. Regulations provide for "awards for achievement and punishment for...wrong doings. The reward should be big and the punishment should be light." If the appropriate labor management committee approves, terms can be shortened by as much as 50 percent; on the other hand terms, as noted, can be extended for up to one year. The cases of Liu Nianchun; Zhou Guoqiang, a labor rights activist and lawyer; and Gao Feng, a religious dissident, all had their sentences extended (288 days for Zhou and 216 for the others) for failure to reform. When Liu protested and began a hunger strike on May 22, he reportedly was thrown into a small dark punishment cell, denied sufficient water, and tortured with electric shocks. The international publicity given to the cases may have accounted for reversals of the extensions for Zhou and Gao. Liu Nianchun, due for release on May 20, 1998, was still in prison as of June 1998.

A detainee with a good record after half a year theoretically may go home at his or her own expense during festivals or under special circumstances. Those who are very ill can be released for treatment but must bear the costs unless the illness or injury is work related. In several cases, "medical parole" even for very sick prisoners has been denied. Once recovered they must complete their terms.

In practice, reeducation camp conditions are harsh and the work load heavy. Inmates work in mines and brick factories, for example, and do heavy agricultural labor. The People's Armed Police guard reeducation inmates just as they guard those who have been judically convicted.

In practice, reeducation camp conditions are harsh and the work load heavy. Inmates work in mines and brick factories, for example, and do heavy agricultural labor. The People's Armed Police guard reeducation inmates just as they guard those who have been judically convicted.

According to the regulations, the correspondence of those held for reeducation is not subject to examination, and guards may not listen to conversations between inmates and visitors. However nothing in the regulations provides for regular visits and cases are known in which visitation rights have been suspended for months on end. A Shanghai dissident, Bao Ge, for example, was permitted only one family visit during his three-year term because he refused to confess his "crimes." He was also denied permission to attend his father's funeral even though he had not violated prison regulations. Another Shanghai dissident, Yao Zhenxiang, was able to see his wife only once in twenty-two months.

The Trial Implementation Methods limit to ten days the amount of time those in reeducation who "carry out a violent act, instigate troubles or commit other dangerous acts" may be locked up. Punishment instruments can only be used if application to do so has been approved, and then only for serious cases and only for seven days. Handcuffing behind the back and shackles are prohibited as are beating, corporal punishment, and torture. The case of Chen Longde proves otherwise. On August 17, 1996, shortly after his conviction to a three-year reeducation sentence, Chen leapt from a two-story walkway at Luoshen Labor Camp in an attempt to avoid repeated beatings and electric shocks from a senior prison official as punishment for his refusal to write a statement of guilt and self-criticism. The official also had promised other prisoners reduced sentences if they too beat Chen. Suffering from two broken hips, a broken leg, and facial injuries, Chen was moved to a police hospital where he spent months flat on his back without moving. On December 1, he was returned to prison still suffering from his injuries which included kidney damage related to the beatings. To date, he reportedly has great difficulty walking but must put in the required work hours at tasks he can do while sitting. Tong Yi, secretary to Wei Jingsheng, was beaten for refusal to put in sixteen-hour days; Yao Zhenxiang was beaten beyond recognition; and Zhang Lin, an Anhui labor activist, sentenced on the trumped-up charge of never having registered his marriage, also was repeatedly beaten.

"Retention for in-camp employment" refers to a system which prevents some people who have completed reeducation terms from returning home. Among those who can be retained are those who have served two terms and, those whose reeducation sentences have been extended. If after three years, such persons have truly reformed, they may return home; if not they may be held indefinitely. In some instances, those who have completed judical sentences are immediately sentenced to reeducation terms for what is deemed unsatisfactory behavior in prison. Such people are sometimes subject to indefinite retention.

Within the legal community in China, reeducation through labor is controversial. Its revision or elimination was under discussion before March 1996 when the National People's Congress (China's legislature) approved major revisions to the Criminal Procedure Law which took effect on January 1, 1997. However, an article in the September 30, 1997 Legal Daily (Fazhi Ribao), an official newspaper, defended the practice as a way to "maintain social peace and prevent and reduce crime." It likened the practice as similar to the way parents treat their children, doctors their patients and teachers their students, and called for strengthening the system. It recommended further definition of the system's legal status and its relationship to other laws, standardization of screening and approval procedures, and improved mechanisms of reeducation.

The legislation applicable to reeducation through labor goes back to 1957; the last set of regulations, the Ministry of Justice's Detailed Regulations on the Administration of Reeducation Through Labor dates from 1992. The three that preceded it and are still applicable in whole or part are: Decision of the State Council Regarding the Question of Reeducation Through Labor, approved by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, August 1, 1957; Supplementary Provisions of the State Council on Reeducation through Labor, approved by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, November 29, 1979; and Trial Implementation Methods for Reeducation through Labor, adopted January 21, 1982. The 1957 Decision is still the fundamental law authorizing reeducation through labor.

Reeducation through labor sanctions violate numerous provisions of International law. Article 9 (4.)of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) provides that "Anyone who is deprived of his liberty by arrest or detention shall be entitled to take proceedings before a court, in order that the court may decide without delay on the lawfulness of his detention..." The reeducation process is arbitrary. It removes the presumption of innocence, involves no judicial officer, provides for no public trial, and makes no provision for defense against the charges.

US-China Summit (June 1998) and Human Rights - Campaigns Page

Back Button