This year expectations were high that China¡¯s Reeducation through Labor (RTL) Program would finally be scrapped, but now it seems that may not entirely be the case.
Earlier media reports, including a post on CCTV¡¯s Sina Weibo micro-blog, stated that it was China¡¯s top lawman Meng Jianzhu who proposed ending the controversial system; however, all related posts were subsequently deleted. New reports from the state media merely say reform of the system will be taking place. While such reform would be received favorably by Chinese citizens and the international community alike, it is unclear what exactly those reforms will be.
According to Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch, it is very likely that Xi Jinping is serious about reform. What remains to be seen is whether real, substantive change will occur or if there will simply be small alterations of the RTL program, such as the replacement of the current version by a milder form of detention still outside the judicial system, Bequelin says. Another possibility might be the addition of some procedural protections such as hearings and legal counsel for defendants.
China¡¯s RTL program has been in place since the 1950¡¯s, when it was often used to quell criticism from political activists. Mainland China currently has hundreds of labor camps that house hundreds of thousands of inmates. Although the official tally of people sentenced to labor camps each year has not been published since 1995, previous figures have shown growth in the reported number of inmates. As reported by Xinhua, a senior official in charge of judicial reform asserts RTL played an important role in maintaining social order during earlier eras, but its defects have become more obvious as China¡¯s legal system and society advances.
For the millions who have experienced RTL first hand, however, ¡®defects¡¯ may not be the right word. Conditions in China¡¯s labor camps are deplorable by international human rights standards. According to Human Rights in China, relevant concerns include overcrowding, unsanitary living conditions, inadequate food, endemic violence, and excessive work hours. Until 1979, Reeducation through Labor was employed very flexibly, with some detainees serving labor sentences of more than 20 years. Although guidelines were created in 1982, they remain so vague as to allow for practically any application of RTL.
The categories of people who can be sent to RTL camps include counterrevolutionaries opposing the CCP and socialism, those who commit minor offenses, those who have a job but refuse to work, those who disturb production, work, school or research institute order, hooligans, and those who ¡°complain endlessly.¡± Local regulations of the law also vary, with Shanxi Province adding gambling to the list and Shanghai adding those who are involved in extra-marital affairs. Moreover, RTL is in violation of the Administrative Punishment Law (APL, 1996) and Legislation Law (LL, 2000), both of which prohibit the use of coercive measures limiting a person¡¯s liberties unless they are passed through legislation by the National People¡¯s Congress or its Standing Committee.
Perhaps in China¡¯s current climate of media activism highlighted by Southern Weekly¡¯s public protest against government censorship, CCP security chiefs have realized the persistent utility of such practices in silencing party opponents. It seems that only time will reveal the true nature of change that will take place, but if previous measures are any gage of reform, human rights activists shouldn¡¯t hold their breath.
By David Gitter
David Gitter graduated with honors from Stony Brook University in New York with a bachelor in Political Science. Gitter is fluent in Mandarin and has been living in China over the past three years. During that time, he held the position of Chief Representative for North America for the Chinese Education Development Cooperation Association. Gitter is a freelance writer who currently resides in New York.
To see an article in Chinese about reforming the RTL system, go to http://www.politicalchina.org/newsinfo.asp?Newsid=227401