“Education through labor” (劳教) has been the fate of many people in China since the 1950s: confinement to a labor camp to be reformed through hard work. The system is still very much in operation in China today, with more than 60,00 people apparently still confined in labor camps. Anyone can be sent to a labor camp for any kind of offense. Social society attempts to have the system reformed have in the last decade all been rebuffed.
Until yesterday. Xi Jinping, about to take the reins of government in China, yesterday made a somewhat passionate statement unequivocally calling for an end to “education through labor.” Today, China’s newspapers are full of portentous words such as “new era”, “complying with the interests of the people”, “fair justice for all”, “resolutely opposing unfair law enforcement and corruption”, “improving people’s safety and happiness”, and “the rule of law”.
The rhetoric is almost breath-taking. For now these are only words, yet you have to hand it to Xi Jinping, what words! Intending to capture the true essence of Xi’s momentous statements, the front page of the Sanxiang City Express (三湘都市报) from Hunan province today proclaims the end of the labor camp in China with the headline “Education through labor: 1957-2013”, along with a simple design of a wall broken through, a great barrier breached.
At exactly the same time as the “Southern Weekly incident” against state censorship in China is taking place in Guangdong province, yesterday at the Political and Legal Work Conference in Beijing, Xi’s comments included the following:
In every single legal case in China, we should work hard to ensure that the mass of the public feel they have received fair justice, so that the undertaking of socialism with Chinese characteristics can be guaranteed to progress smoothly.
As the Sanxiang City Express (三湘都市报) explains, the conference in Beijing is discussing the reform of a number of thorny issues. Chief among these are “education through labor” (劳教), a living relic of the Mao Zedong era in which individuals are sent to be reformed in labor camps for any kind of transgression; the population registration “hukou” system; and the mechanism of lodging public complaints via petitioning.
Following the editorial put out in the official Xinhua news agency (see Links and sources below), the Sanxiang City Express locates Xi’s comments within China’s transition to what is described as the “Chinese dream”: a stable society ruled fairly by the law where “not only every individual has to obey the law, but every organized group, without exception.” In this Chinese dream “no-one will be accused wrongly and evil-doers will not be tolerated.”
China is undergoing fundamental change, it concludes, and the people’s need for a safe and secure China ruled by the law is urgent. It is just as urgent for Chongqing University student Ren Jianyu (任建宇), whose experience is raised as a case in point in the Sanxiang City Express. Ren was charged with subversion of state power in 2011 and sentenced to two years in a labor camp. His crime was to post a series of “negative” comments online. Ren appealed his sentence, but a higher court in Chongqing upheld the original verdict in December 2012.
So Ren and more than 60,000 others are still languishing in labor camps, and they will stay there until Xi comes good on his words.
Appendix: A short history of “education through labor” (Brief summary of Sanxiang City Express)
“Education through labor” was brought into existence in 1957, yet was confined to only select groups of criminals. From 1979, the types of people sent to such camps began to multiply, eventually encompassing almost every kind of criminal category. In the last decade there have been various calls for the abolition of the system, including an attempt through the National People’s Congress in 2005 and a joint letter by intellectuals to the State Council Legislative Affairs Office in 2007. None of these attempts met with any success.
In October 2012 the State Council Information Office released a White Paper on judicial reform in China. This document mentioned that reform of “education through labor” was being considered.