Re-education Through Labor (laojiao) was established in 1956, even though the practice can be traced back to the 1920s at the Chinese Communist Party’s “revolutionary bases.” Laojiao was originally established in order to reeducate perceived “counter-revolutionaries” whose crimes were deemed not serious enough to warrant prison or Reform through Labor (laogai). The first laojiao prisoners were mostly “counter-revolutionaries” targeted during the Suppressing Counterrevolutionaries Movement (镇压反革命运动, 1951-1953) and the Eliminating Counterrevolutionaries Movement (肃清反革命运动, 1953-1955).
In January, 1956, the Central Committee of the Communist Party issued Directive on Immediately Setting up Reform through Education Organs by All Provinces and Municipalities (《关于各省、市立即筹办劳动教养机构的指示》). The Directive stated:
The counter-revolutionaries and other bad elements that will be uncovered during the movement that aims at eliminating all the hidden counter-revolutionaries need to be dealt with properly. They are not serious enough to be criminally sentenced, yet politically they are not suited to stay [at their work units]. Furthermore, said elements will increase the unemployment if they are not controlled. To properly solve this problem, the Central Committee decided to adopt re-education through labor, that is, to apprehend them and send them to designated places to labor and produce. Reform through labor allows them to labor for the country and to support themselves, as well as undergo political and thought reforms. They will gradually become persons who are of real use to the country.
The Directive continued to explain the difference between laojiao (re-education through labor) and laogai (reform through labor). “While those to be reformed through labor were the ones who had received judicial sentences, those to be reformed through re-education were those who were put under surveillance [管制, guan zhi] or received administrative sanction [处分, chu fen].”
On August 1, 1957, Decision on Reform through Education (《关于劳动教养问题的决定》) was passed by the 78th Meeting of the First Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress and promulgated by the State Council. Laojiao obtained a legal status as an “administrative order” from the Decision. Many of those who were labeled as the “rightists” during the Anti-Rightist Campaign (1957-1958) were sent to laojiao. By this time, laojiao expanded its targets to include “hooligans, witches, and wanderers.” Moreover, laojiao began to target the family members of those who had been “killed, arrested and struggled against during Land Reform, the Suppressing Counter-Revolutionary Movement and other social reform movements.” Nearly 500,000 people were sent to laojiao in 1960.
The 1957 Decision did not, however, adequately define or explain the intricacies of laojiao. For example, although insinuated by the fact that the Party established laojiao for supposedly less serious crimes, prisoners were often left wondering for decades when their re-education term would end. In fact, many of those who were sent to laojiao were never released; they were kept at Forced Job Placement (留场就业) camps for many years and eventually died in the camps.
On September 7, 1954, the State Council passed Temporary Management Methods for Job Placement of Criminals Who Have Completed Their Terms (《劳动改造罪犯刑满释放及安置就业暂行处理办法》). The directive was originally applied to all laogai prisoners till April 1961, when an internal document titled “Public Security Supplementary Regulations Regarding Ten Current Problems in Public Security Work” (《关于公安工作十个具体政策问题的补充规定》) raised the question of what to do with those who had completed their laojiao terms. The Public Security Bureau decided to apply the 1954 directive to laojiao as well. This directive affirmed the arbitrary nature of imprisonment in China. In effect, prisoners could remain in prison camps as Forced Job Placement personnel indefinitely. In certain laogai and laojiao camps, Forced Job Placement personnel outnumbered conventional prisoners. Despite the nominal distinctions between the three classes of prisoner, prisoners created and maintained a lexicon to differentiate among themselves, which also shows the substantial similarities between laogai, laojiao and forced job placement. After Forced Job Placement was established, prisoners and cadres in the Forced Labor Camps (劳改队) began to refer to laogai prisoners as “laogai number one” (da Laogai), laojiao prisoners as “laogai number two” (er Laogai), and Forced Job Placement personnel as “laogai number three” (san Laogai).
On November 29, 1979, Supplementary Regulations Regarding Reeducation Through Labor (《国务院关于劳动教养的补充规定》) was passed by the 12th Meeting of the Fifth Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress and promulgated by the State Council. Article 1 and Article 2 of the Supplementary Regulations stipulated that it is the responsibility of the Reform Through Education Management Committees to investigate and detain those “who need to be reformed through education.” Article 3 of the Regulations stipulated that laojiao terms can range from “one to three years.” However, the Regulations also stipulated that, “when necessary,” laojiao terms could be postponed for an additional year.
Public security organs were responsible for the administration of laojiao. Reform Through Education Management Committees were located at Public Security departments and offices. Article 4 of Notice of the State Council on Combining Forced Labor and Custody and Investigation to Reform Through Labor (《国务院关于将强制劳动和收容审查两项措施统一于劳动教养的通知》), promulgated by the State Council on February 29, 1980, stipulated that enforcement of laojiao was the responsibility of local Ministry of Public Security organs. On April 12, 2002, Ministry of Public Security issued Regulations on Public Security Organs at Handling Reform Through Education Cases （《公安机关办理劳动教养案件规定》）, which further clarified that the Reform Through Education Examination and Approval Committees at the provincial and other levels are established by public security departments and will act as the examining and approving organs of laojiao, to “examine and approve re-education through labor cases according to related laws, administrative regulations and this Regulation, and decide accordingly whether or not to approve the cases in the name of Reform Through Education Management Committees.” (Article 2)
In the 1990s, the majority of those who were held in laojiao camps were petty criminals, drug addicts, and prostitutes. Certainly, however, the Party still used laojiao as a tool to suppress political nuisances. According to an article published by a research group affiliated with the Ministry of Justice, nearly 50 million people were sent to laojiao camps by the end of 2004. Moreover, the report stated that 348 laojiao centers existed in 2008, 33 of which were reserved for female offenders.
Since its implementation, laojiao had been used more as a tool to eliminate the “enemies” of the CCP— chiefly to suppress political dissidents—than to “educate” minor offenders of laws. Until its demise in 2013, laojiao was both nationally and internationally opposed. Spearheading this opposition, the Laogai Research Foundation was among the first international organizations to expose this arbitrary and inhumane system.
Perhaps laojiao’s most defining characteristic was its arbitrary nature. In fact, it was riddled with arbitrary procedures. For example, Reform Through Education Management Committees made final decisions regarding laojiao sentences without judicial proceedings. This directly violates the Chinese Constitution, which stipulates that “no citizens may be arrested except with the approval or by decision of a people's procuratorate or by decision of a people's court.” Laojiao also violates numerous provisions of International law. Article 9 (4.) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (which China joined on October 5, 1998) provides that "Anyone who is deprived of his liberty by arrest or detention shall be entitled to take proceedings before a court, in order that the court may decide without delay on the lawfulness of his detention...." The lack of due process inherent in laojiao detentions lends the Public Security Bureau incredible power to detain whomever they want. For example, an especially egregious laojiao case involved Tang Hui, the mother of an 11-year-old girl who was kidnapped, raped, and forced into prostitution in 2006. Tang was condemned to 18 months of laojiao in August, 2010 for “interrupting social orders” by the Public Security Bureau in Yongzhou, Hunan. Tang’s offense was demanding that justice be served on her daughter’s kidnappers.
In addition to being an arbitrary system, conditions in laojiao camps were always abhorrent and fell short of international standards and standards prescribed by Chinese authorities. Former inmates have testified to multiple human rights abuses in laojiao camps. For example, lack of food and water was common in the camps. Moreover, inmates were forced to labor for longer than 12 hours shifts and often tortured when production quotas were unmet.
On December 28, 2013, the Third Plenary Session of the 18th CPC Central Committee approved the decision to abolish laojiao. Chinese officials explained that most of the 300 or so laojiao camps would be changed into drug rehabilitation centers.
Chinese authorities have applauded the abolition of laojiao as a positive step towards genuine rule of law. Yet with the wide use of other extralegal detention facilities, including “black jails” commonly used to illegally hold petitioners, genuine rule of law is still far from reality. Moreover, the existence of arbitrary violations of Chinese law clearly intended to ensure government hegemony, such as “subverting the state” and “gathering a crowd to disturb public order,” will undoubtedly prevent China from advancing to a state of genuine rule of law.
Unfortunately, there is reason to believe that Chinese rule of law has actually worsened in the wake of laojiao’s abolition. Take, for example, the arrest and conviction of Xu Zhiyong (许志永), a lawyer and founder of the New Citizens Movement. Xu organized nonviolent protests against corruption and discrimination in education and was subsequently convicted of “gathering a crowd to disturb public order” in early 2014. Similarly, Pu Zhiqiang (浦志强), a human rights lawyer who had advocated for years to abolish the laojiao system, was arrested in 2014. Pu’s arrest occurred after meeting with a handful of other human rights activists and scholars to discuss about the 1989 crackdown in Beijing in June, 2014. Officially charged with “creating disturbances and illegally obtaining personal information,” Pu’s arrest is surely evidence that laojiao’s abolition does nothing to fundamentally alter China’s abhorrent legal, judicial, and penal system.
LRF, January, 2015