“Reeducation Through Labor” has Been Swept into the Dustbin of History

by Tienchi Martin-Liao    /  December 4, 2013  / No comments

The CCP has abolished its system of forced prison labor, but some believe more legal reforms are necessary.

Laogai Solitary Confinement

Model of a Laogai solitary confinement cell, from the Laogai Museum in Washington, DC. Photo: jcm_DC via Flickr.

On November 15, at the Third plenary Session of the 18th CCP Central Committee, the Chinese Communist Party abolished its notorious system of laojiao (reeducation through labor). With its 56 years of history, the laojiao system was a part of the larger Chinese prison mechanism—laogai (Reform Through Labor)—and was originally modeled on the Soviet Union’s Gulag, or forced labor camps.

  1. Blind Chess, a column by Tienchi Martin-Liao
  2. During the Cultural Revolution, people were sentenced to death or outright murdered because of one wrong sentence. In China today writers do not lose their lives over their poems or articles; however, they are jailed for years. My friend Liu Xiaobo for example will stay in prison till 2020; even winning the Nobel Peace Prize could not help him. In prison those lucky enough not to be sentenced to hard labor play “blind chess” to kill time AND TO TRAIN THE BRAIN NOT TO RUST. Freedom of expression is still a luxury in China. The firewall is everywhere, yet words can fly above it and so can our thoughts. My column, like the blind chess played by prisoners, is an exercise to keep our brains from rusting and the situation in China from indifference.
  3. Tienchi Martin-Liao
  4. Tienchi Martin-Liao is the president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. Previously she worked at the Institute for Asian Affairs in Hamburg, Germany, and lectured at the Ruhr-University Bochum from 1985 to 1991. She became head of the Richard-Wilhelm Research Center for Translation in 1991 until she took a job in 2001 as director of the Laogai Research Foundation (LRF) to work on human rights issues. She was at LRF until 2009. Martin-Liao has served as deputy director of the affiliated China Information Center and was responsible for updating the Laogai Handbook and working on the Black Series, autobiographies of Chinese political prisoners and other human rights books. She was elected president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center in October 2009 and has daily contact with online journalists in China.

Above the entrance of Auschwitz one can read the Nazi-German phrase: “Arbeit macht frei” (work makes you free). At the entrance of a Chinese prison, one can read the phrase: “Laodong gei ni xinsheng” (work gives you new life). In the first 30 years of the People’s Republic of China, the criminal justice system had two objectives: Thought reform and forced labor. The communist party wanted to change all “criminals” to “new socialist men and women” and it believed that through physical labor a person’s mind and thoughts could be renewed. That was the situation from the 50s through the 60s and 70s. Then, when Deng Xiaoping dropped Mao’s communist dogma and marched the country forward to materialism, urging the people to “become rich,” his obedient subjects discovered that free prison labor could bring wealth. Consequently, thought reform lost its importance and forced labor became the main objective of the punitive system.

Because of international criticism, the Chinese government abandoned the word laogai in 1990 and began to call its criminal facilities prisons. In 1994 it promulgated the criminal law and the laogai system was officially abandoned. Yet laojiao survived for another 19 years until November 2013. Now it’s finally reached the end and become a historical term.

Lao means labor, jiao means teach—laojiao: “Reeducation through labor.” When this system was in place, as an administrative measure, the police could detain any Chinese citizens who had supposedly committed a minor crime. The detention could last up to four years without a court trial. Theft, prostitution, traffic offenders, fraud, drug use and the like were all subject to this ‘administrative measure.’ Very often it was also used to detain Falungong practitioners or underground Christians, as well as other religious and political dissidents.

Scholars and even government officials have criticized the laojiao system for a long time. Dissident writer and Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo wrote an article in 2007 entitled “Laojiao, a Draconian Measure that Should Have Been Repealed” in support of legal scholars like He Weifang and Mao Yushi who were fighting to abolish the system. Similarly, a researcher at the high-profile Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the law specialist Liu Renwen, spent years appealing for the abandonment of laojiao. According to Liu, “Measures like criminal detention and reeducation through labor which deprive personal liberty, must be decided by the court, not by the administrative organ.” Liu even said this when he talked to foreign media in 2012.

The Chinese People’s Congress has discussed this issue for years, but giving up this easy instrument of control requires boldness and self-confidence. While Jiang Zemin found it to be a good weapon to fight against the rising forces of Falungong, his successor Hu Jintao just followed the established rules and didn’t dare touch the hot potato. Now Xi Jinping has finally walked out of the malignant shadow of history.

There are too many absurd examples of human rights abuses through the laojiao system to detail them all. In one instance, a female petitioner named Mao Hengfeng had been sent to a labor camp for one and half years because she showed solidarity with the imprisoned Liu Xiaobo in December 2009. In another example, after a man in Chongqing city had a fight with his wife, he threatened her, saying, “I’ll hack you with a knife.” She called the police and he was sent to the camp for a year. In Chengde, Hebei province, two drunk young men trampled a woman’s foot. The police came and sent one man to be “reeducated through labor.” In short, the history of the laojiao is a hodgepodge of tragicomedy.

Laojiao is a double-edged sword of absurdity and cruelty. The bloodcurdling stories of the physical and psychological abuse experienced by Falungong practitioners in Masanjia Women’s Labor Camp was known long before this year’s New York Times report. Some of the detainees have to endure several methods of torture, such as “on the big hook,” in which the legs and arms are hung on hooks until they dislocate. “Little confinement” involves putting a person in a coffin-like space for days. In “sit on the tiger chair” the victim is forced to sit on an iron chair, with his hands and feet bound by cuffs and shackles that, with each movement, grow tighter until the metal cuts into the flesh. “Tied on the dead bed” is a torture reserved for those who begin a hunger strike—once their limbs are tied to the four corners of a bed they are force-fed.

Masanjia is only one of the approximately 350 reeducation-through-labor camps in the country, though the exact number is unknown. In the past, millions of citizens were subjected to the hell of these camps in the name of law.

With the abolishment of the laojiao system, will all this inhumane treatment of “criminals” find an end? People have their doubts.

On November 19, four days after the government declared that laojiao was abolished, 88 independent Chinese lawyers, including prominent figures like Jiang Tianyong, Li Heping, and Teng Biao posted a reaction to the new development: “Re-education through labor has been abolished but, despite the legal system, other facilities are still running: The so-called legal education base, center of legal education, legal classes, admonition center, various types of ‘black jails’ and other rogue camouflaged measures of laojiao, are all essentially a crime of illegal detention of citizens. It should be totally and immediately banned and cleared up. The responsible persons must be brought to justice.”

This is a realistic description of the legal situation in China, with or without laojiao. If Xi Jinping wants China to be recognized as country with a rule of law, there is still a long way to go.

About the Author

Tienchi Martin-Liao is the president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. Previously she worked at the Institute for Asian Affairs in Hamburg, Germany, and lectured at the Ruhr-University Bochum from 1985 to 1991. She became head of the Richard-Wilhelm Research Center for Translation in 1991 until she took a job in 2001 as director of the Laogai Research Foundation (LRF) to work on human rights issues. She was at LRF until 2009. Martin-Liao has served as deputy director of the affiliated China Information Center and was responsible for updating the Laogai Handbook and working on the Black Series, autobiographies of Chinese political prisoners and other human rights books. She was elected president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center in October 2009 and has daily contact with online journalists in China.

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