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Demolition of the Reeducation-through-labor System Is A Progress in China’s Rule of Law

Dec 09, 2013

The decision to demolish the reeducation-through-labor system made at the Third Plenum of 18th Communist Party of China Central Committee has caught a lot of attention both at home and abroad.

Titled “promoting China’s construction of rule of law” as the ninth question in the Central Party Committee’s decisions on a number of important issues for deepening reforms in an all-round manner (to be referred to as decisions thereafter), it proposes measures for judicial reforms in order to “safeguard the authority of the Constitution and laws, to deepen reforms of the system for administrative law enforcement, to ensure the independent and fair use of jurisdiction and prosecution right, to improve the mechanism for the exercise of judicial power and to optimize the judicial security of human rights.” Of all these, the most noteworthy is the abolition of the reeducation-through-labor system. In his interpretation of the decisions, CPC General Secretary Xi Jinping pointed out: “[The] judicial system is an important component part of the political system. In recent years, people’s grievances are concentrated on the judicial unfairness. The judicial system’s lack of credibility has a lot to do with the unfair judicial system and its related unreasonable working mechanism.” The reeducation-through-labor penalty is such an unfair system that has become the focus of public grievances.

Initiated in 1955, the system has existed for more than half a century. In the early years of New China, it was employed as a means of struggle against the new government’s political opponents. When the new power stood firm, such a system was used as a means to maintain social order by punishing those destabilizing elements. To be fair, this system played its due role in consolidating the new political power and maintaining social order in the early years of New China.

However, the reeducation-through-labor system has three defects from the very beginning: the deficiency in legislature – it was jointly made by different departments. When it was first released by the State Council, four kinds of people were declared to be the subject to this penalty. In 1982 when the Ministry of Public Security published “The Trial Measures for Reeducation through Labor”, the penalty was meant to punish six kinds of offenders. When the Ministry of Public Security released “Regulations on Public Security Department Handling Reeducation through Labor Cases” 20 years later in 2002, the target of this penalty extended to 10 kinds of people.

The second defect lies with its execution. This form of punishment has been distorted and abused in its enforcement. For example, more than 200,000 rightists were once detained in reeducation-through-labor camps for 10 or 20 years in the last century. Even those whose offence was not serious enough for administrative penalties were jailed in such camps.

The third is its political defect. Such penalty has turned out to be a weapon some officials used to avenge themselves against their opponents. There has been cases when citizens, who exercise their right of reporting on abuse of power, venting grievances or visiting higher authorities for justice, were sent to reeducation-through-labor camps. Such a form of punishment has shown its serious defects in China’s judicial sphere and is also one of the epitomes of China’s judicial injustice.

With China’s reform and opening up, such a system is becoming increasingly incompatible with the current social situation. In the first place, there are stipulations about rights of person and personal freedom in China’s Constitution, which specify that a citizen’s right of person is free from violation; no citizen can be arrested unless with approval from the People’s Procuratorate  or an warrant from the People’s Court; and illegal detention of people or deprivation and restriction of citizens’ personal freedom in other ways are prohibited. Yet, the reeducation-through-labor system is against the stipulations of the Constitution. 

Furthermore, such a system is based on three sets of legal codes: the Decisions on Reeducation through Labor released by the State Council in 1957, the Supplementary Decisions on Reeducation through Labor also released by the State Council in 1979. They are administrative regulations. The Trial Rules on Reeducation through Labor was released by the Ministry of Public Security in 1982, which were just department regulations. In line with China’s Law on Legislation, penalty to restrict people’s right of person can only be meted out by national laws. Administrative regulation has no right to do so. The reeducation-through-labor system that allows the public security department the right to deprive citizens of their right of person is in conflict with the existing laws. 

In addition, such a system lacks support of legal procedure. In its execution, those who are subject to this penalty are usually deprived of the right to appeal and seek assistance from lawyers and even the right to know about why they are so punished. What is even more ridiculous is the fact that such penalty is often more severe than such criminal punishment as surveillance, detention and imprisonment of three years. So it is natural that the system should be abolished.

Of course, some problems will arise with its abolition. For example, what shall we do with offences that are not serious enough to be incriminated but are too serious for administrative penalty? We shall have no way to punish those who commit such offences. And those who are working in reeducation-through-labor camps will possibly lose their jobs. So the decisions point out that with the abolition of the reeducation-through-labor system, the law for punishing and correcting criminal offences will be improved and so will the community correction system. Wang Xixin, vice-president of the school of law of Peking University, believes that a new law, say a law on social correction, should be made to fill in the gap.

I believe that the decision to abolish the reeducation-through-labor system represents respect for personal freedom and progress in China’s rule of law.

Chen Qun is Former Vice President of the China Law Press.
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