End of China's labour camps won't halt government abuse of power

Chang Ping welcomes the abolition of re-education through labour, but says bypassing the NPC to end it on party orders alone just points to the pervasive problem of power abuse

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 November, 2013, 6:57pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 November, 2013, 8:54am

In the 1990s, I lived for some time in a basement where a friend was running an entertainment business. Next door was a nightclub which the police would raid from time to time, arresting a group of people each time.

We called these raids "Repairing the Second Ring Road". The government was at the time rebuilding the road, and such arrests no doubt provided free labour for the project. The legal term for this punishment was "re-education through labour".

As long as this structure of power relations remains, civic rights will never have any protection

We know now that repairing roads was a relatively lenient punishment. Those arrested for such "re-education" have been subjected to far worse in recent years because of a government crackdown on petitioners, protesters and Falun Gong practitioners to "maintain stability". Take, for example, the torture uncovered at Liaoning's Masanjia labour camp. Former inmates of the women's camp told of horrifying punishment, including having electric batons and toothbrushes shoved into their vaginas.

Since re-education through labour was introduced in the 1950s, millions of people have been detained on the discretion of the state security apparatus, deprived of their freedom like criminals but without recourse to a trial or any judicial process.

For years, human rights organisations, lawyers and the media have called for abolition of the system. That day finally came on November 15, when the Chinese Communist Party published its "Decision on Major Issues Concerning Comprehensively Deepening Reforms", announcing that it would end re-education through labour as part of broader reforms.

According to my secondary school textbook on political education, the party's claim to be "great, glorious and correct" was based on its ability to correct its own mistakes. Abolishing re-education through labour is the latest example of self-regulation, and the Chinese media has heaped praise on the decision.

We can't deny it is good news: even though the party would never allow any move to investigate past wrongdoings or compensate those victimised by the system, at least many people will be freed as a result.

The fundamental problem with re-education through labour is that it violates legal procedures by allowing public security authorities to punish people unilaterally. Unfortunately, while the decision to abolish the system is welcome, its execution is just as problematic legally. The system was established by the State Council with the approval of the National People's Congress Standing Committee. To abolish it, the government should similarly seek the approval of the NPC.

Yet party leaders didn't even bother with the word "suggest", announcing in the "decision" after the third plenum that the system would simply be abolished, in the name of the party. Even though everyone knows the party makes the ultimate decision, not even bothering to pretend there is due process is just too much.

Legal experts who took note of the lapse nevertheless defended the government, and said approval could come as early as next month. The Standing Committee meets six times a year, and the final meeting this year is due to be held next month.

As it happened, implementation was lightning-quick. On the day the "decision" was announced, Shanghai authorities freed people detained in the city's labour camps. Soon after, so did the governments in Changsha and other places.

Those jailed in these camps are not criminals, and the sooner they are released, the better. But the reason the police and state security forces are able to abuse civic rights in this way is because they are not accountable to the public.

The party deciding on its own to bypass the NPC altogether to undo a law - even if it were a bad law - is also a consequence of such a power grab. People have become so accustomed to such government abuse of power that, as long as the policy is seen to be a good one, they no longer care whether the decision-making process is just or fair.

The point is, as long as this structure of power relations remains, civic rights will never have any real protection. This year, many activists have been falsely detained for disturbing the public order. According to the law, anyone accused of this should have access to a lawyer, unlike those packed off to labour camps. But, in reality, as human rights lawyers have pointed out, the existence of "black jails" and types of "civic education centres" continues to thwart justice. It's too easy for the authorities to create new ways to punish people.

Chang Ping is a current affairs commentator writing on politics, society and culture. This commentary is translated from the Chinese