Skip to main content

China's Guangzhou moves to end 'Re-education Through Labor' camps

By Peter Shadbolt, CNN
updated 11:34 PM EDT, Mon September 9, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • China's third city Guangzhou announces first steps in unbolting 'Re-education Through Labor' system
  • System was set up in the 1950s under Mao Zedong and modeled on the Soviet 'gulags'
  • It provides for detention without trial for petty thieves and prostitutes to drug abusers
  • Human Rights Watch says the changes to the system, however, are only cosmetic

Hong Kong (CNN) -- China's third-largest city Guangzhou -- capital of China's richest and most progressive province Guangdong -- has announced it has taken the first concrete steps in unbolting the country's often reviled "Re-education Through Labor" (RTL) system.

A senior judge told the state-run China Daily that all detainees in the city under the "laojiao" or RTL system would be released by the end of the year.

"The police and many legal experts have realized the drawbacks of laojiao and called to abolish the system, which has become outdated," Yu Mingyong, deputy president of Guangzhou Intermediate People's Court, was quoted as saying.

"Many of those released from laojiao find many difficulties returning to society, families and work after ... their personal freedom has been restricted in labor camps for several years."

Guangzhou still has about 100 people in labor camps, he said.

Apple to investigate supplier in China
Broken by China's labor camps
China under fire over labor camps

Human Rights Watch welcomed the move but said there were few RTL camps and detainees in cities. It estimates Guangdong has as many as 18,000 detainees held in a network of facilities throughout the province.

Despite the move to end the process -- originally aimed at reforming offenders through a mixture of hard labor and Marxist indoctrination -- HRW claims the changes are merely cosmetic and work camps have simply been relabeled drug detox centers.

How it started

Reform Through Labor was set up in the 1950s under Mao Zedong and modeled on the Soviet "gulags" -- a place where "counter-revolutionaries" and "class enemies" could be detained without trial.

Millions are believed to have died through overwork, suicide and harsh conditions until the system was overhauled in the 1970s when Deng Xiaoping released prisoners accused of political and religious offenses.

According to the latest available figures from the Bureau of Re-education Through Labor under the Ministry of Justice, 160,000 people were held in 350 re-education through labor centers nationwide as of the end of 2008. The UNHCR says the figure is possibly as high as 190,000 people.

Today the system empowers police to jail accused offenders -- from petty thieves and prostitutes to drug abusers -- for up to four years without a judicial hearing.

Read: China hints at ending its labor prison camps

Public criticism of the system has grown in China where petitioners against official corruption, "subversives," such as Falun Gong practitioners or those simply finding themselves on the wrong side of powerful Communist Party figures, have also been sentenced to penal labor without trial.

Many of those released from laojiao find many difficulties returning to society, families and work after...
Yu Mingyong, judge

In a brief note in the official Nanfang Daily last week, the vice president of Guangzhou City, Yuming Yong, said the city's administrative courts had ceased hearing RTL cases in March, effectively scrapping the system.

"Judicial reform of RTL has been a priority this year," Yong told the Nanfang Daily. "Guangzhou has stopped approval of re-education through labor (cases) further highlighting the protection of citizens' personal liberties."

An administrative tribunal official Xiao Zhixiong added that with no new detention cases being heard, the system would eventually be "digested out" but that specific reforms would be a matter for other relevant departments.

In January this year, the central government in Beijing strongly hinted that it would begin scrapping the system although Guangzhou's announcement is the strongest indication yet that concrete steps have been taken.

Cosmetic changes

While Guangdong province has a reputation for being progressive and reform-oriented, human rights groups are skeptical about the depth of change to the controversial jail system.

Nicholas Bequelin, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch told CNN that reforms may simply be a cosmetic re-branding of an otherwise repressive system.

"Guangdong is at the vanguard of reform, that's their identity," Bequelin said. "Unfortunately, this 'reform' essentially consists in changing the signboard at the labor camp from 'Re-education Through Labor' to 'Coercive Detoxification Center.'"

He said Guangdong had been ready to move fast because the majority of the RTL detainees in the province -- 10,000 out of a total of 18,000 according to HRW — are drug offenders or users who posed little political threat to authorities in Beijing.

"It's not entirely clear to us what has become of the 8,000 RTL detainees who are not being shifted to the detoxification system. Some may have been shifted to yet another system of administrative detention, 'Custody and Education,' designed for people suspected of engaging in sex work or of having hired the services of sex workers," Bequelin said.

Unfortunately, this 'reform' essentially consists in changing the signboard at the labor camp from 'Reeducation Through Labor' to 'Coercive Detoxification Center'
Nicholas Bequelin

These centers, HRW argues, also constitute arbitrary detention because deprivation of liberty results from administrative, rather than judicial, decisions.

"In other words, no trial, no lawyer, no appeal. And the conditions in these centers are consistently abusive," he added.

Read: 'Lost generation' recall hardships of Cultural Revolution

He said that while it was encouraging that local authorities had stopped admitting new detainees while they awaited more concrete reforms from Beijing, the central government could reverse its proposals at any stage.

"As far as Human Rights Watch is concerned, the only way forward is to put a definitive end re-education through labor, not to shift detainees to another arbitrary system of detention, or establish a new system to warehouse minor offenders, petitioners, government critics, sex workers and offenders below the age of 18," Bequelin said.

Backlash over exposed cases

Two high-profile cases that became public last year generated a massive backlash, forcing the government to address the thorny issue of RTL.

In one case, a mother was sentenced to 18 months in a labor camp for "disrupting social order" after she repeatedly petitioned officials to execute men convicted of raping her 11-year-old daughter. In another case, a young village official was sent to a labor camp for two years for re-tweeting Weibo posts that were deemed seditious.

Read: Chinese petitioners claim hotel used as 'black jail'

While even Guangdong's progressive administration has stopped short of attacking the system, saying that it was "not opposed to the use of coercive power and punishment by public security organs," recent official announcements have offered guarded criticism of RTL.

"The system was designed to maintain social order, prevent and reduce crimes by reforming people who committed minor offenses but were not punishable by the penal code," read one Xinhua editorial. "It did play an important role in maintaining social order in specific periods, however, with the development of society and the legal system, its defects have become more and more evident."

Jie Chen contributed to this report

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 7:13 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
A smuggler in Dandong, a Chinese border town near North Korea, tells CNN about the underground trade with North Korean soldiers
updated 2:54 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Yenn Wong got quite a surprise one morning earlier this month when she found out an exact copy of her Hong Kong restaurant had opened in China.
updated 11:15 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
When I first came across a "virtual lover" service on e-commerce site Taobao, China's version of Amazon, I thought it was hype.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Each year Yi Jiefeng does what she can to stop China turning into a desert.
updated 10:54 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
As its relationship with the West worsen, Russia is pivoting east in an attempt to secure business with China.
updated 10:29 PM EDT, Tue October 7, 2014
Aspiring Chinese comics performing in Shanghai's underground comedy scene hope to bring stand-up to the masses.
updated 12:54 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Liu Wen is one of the world's highest-paid models and the first Chinese face to crack the top five in Forbes' annual list of top earners.
updated 7:44 AM EDT, Fri October 3, 2014
Cunning wolf? Working class hero? Or bland Beijing loyalist? C.Y. Leung was a relative unknown when he came to power in 2012.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Thu October 2, 2014
 A man uses his smartphone on July 16, 2014 in Tokyo, Japan. Only 53.5% of Japanese owned smartphones in March, according to a white paper released by the Ministry of Communications on July 15, 2014. The survey of a thousand participants each from Japan, the U.S., Britain, France, South Korea and Singapore, demonstrated that Japan had the fewest rate of the six; Singapore had the highest at 93.1%, followed by South Korea at 88.7%, UK at 80%, and France at 71.6%, and U.S. at 69.6% in the U.S. On the other hand, Japan had the highest percentage of regular mobile phone owners with 28.7%. (Photo by Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images)
App hopes to help those seeking a way out of China's overstrained public health system.
updated 8:20 PM EDT, Thu October 2, 2014
Yards from pro-democracy protests, stands the Hong Kong garrison of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), China's armed forces.
updated 7:23 AM EDT, Thu October 2, 2014
The massive street rallies that have swept Hong Kong present a major dilemma for China's leadership.
updated 3:07 AM EDT, Sat September 27, 2014
Chinese wine drinkers need to develop a taste for the cheap stuff, not just premium red wines like Lafite.
updated 9:09 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
The Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, set off a media kerfuffle this month when he spoke about his next reincarnation.
updated 10:18 AM EDT, Sun September 28, 2014
He's one of the fieriest political activists in Hong Kong — he's been called an "extremist" by China's state-run media — and he's not old enough to drive.
updated 10:57 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
China has no wine-making tradition but the country now uncorks more bottles of red than any other.
updated 5:29 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Christians in eastern China keep watch in Wenzhou, where authorities have demolished churches and removed crosses.
updated 1:38 AM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
Home-grown hip-hop appeals to a younger generation but its popularity has not translated into record deals and profits for budding rap artists.
ADVERTISEMENT