On May 14, 2009, Beijing lawyer Xie Yanyi (谢燕益) sent a letter to the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) requesting that information about China's "reeducation-through-labor" (RTL) system be made public under the provisions of the country's 2007 Regulations on the Disclosure of Public Information. That same day, he posted the content of the letter on his blog. On June 6, Xie received a letter from the General Office of the Ministry of Justice (view MOJ document), which denied most of his requests on the grounds of state secrecy but also responded that some general RTL statistics are "open government information" available on the MOJ website. (Dui Hua's translations of Xie's letter and the MOJ response are below.) *
Xie's request for information references numerous provisions in China's laws and constitution, as well as plans and policies put forward by the government and the Chinese Communist Party—all of which profess the importance of public information and the right of citizens to exert oversight over government agencies. He explains that disclosing information about RTL is essential so that both policymakers and ordinary citizens have "the important facts and information necessary in the debate over whether to retain or abolish the RTL system." Xie clearly stands on the side of those who believe RTL should be abolished, seeing it as a major obstacle to implementation of rule of law and an arbitrary abuse of power that breeds social resentment and threatens to create the very instability it is supposedly intended to prevent.
Xie Yanyi is one of a relatively small group of lawyers in China who actively represent individuals seeking protection of their rights against injustice. He is known for taking on cases involving HIV carriers, farmers whose land has been seized, individuals whose homes have been forcibly demolished, and Falun Gong practitioners. As a lawyer who frequently meets with obstacles set by the government to prevent him from carrying out his professional responsibilities, Xie no doubt was fully aware that there was little chance his application would be granted and that China's overreaching statutes protecting "state secrets" would be the most convenient grounds upon which to dispose of his request.
This type of rights-protection work carries with it many costs. Since Xie's request was sent to the MOJ, he has become one of dozens of lawyers whose annual licenses to practice law have not been renewed by local lawyers associations, a measure widely interpreted as official retaliation against those who dare to take on sensitive cases.
Document One: Xie Yanyi's Request to the Ministry of Justice
To: Ministry of Justice of the PRC
From: Xie Yanyi, applicant
Date: May 14, 2009
1. Make public on the Ministry of Justice website how many RTL facilities there are currently in China, how many citizens are currently being held in RTL, how many police officers there are in the RTL system, and the annual state financial expenditure [for the RTL system];
2. Make public on the MOJ website how many citizens who have been sent to RTL in the past five years have not accepted the RTL decision and have filed an appeal (including through administrative review, lawsuit, formal complaint, petition, accusation, etc.) and what sort of legal relief these citizens who have been sent to RTL received, such as the acceptance and success rates for administrative lawsuits;
3. Make public on the MOJ website the proportion of the various groups that comprise the group of citizens who have been sent to RTL in the past five years. For example: (1) The percentage and number of petitioners; (2) the percentage and number of religious believers; (3) the percentage and number of individuals sent to RTL who created serious disturbances or other [offenses] that did not "reach the level where they should be subject to criminal punishment"; (4) the percentage and number of dissidents, those imprisoned for speech, rightists, etc.
4. Make public on the MOJ website how individuals sent to RTL are currently being treated. For example: whether they are compelled to engage in labor, the number who have suffered bodily injury after being subjected to beatings or other abuse, and the number of citizens sent to RTL who have died unnatural deaths.
Facts and Rationale:
I. Legal basis for this application for disclosure of information
According to Article 2 of the Constitution of the PRC: "All power in the PRC belongs to the people....The people administer state affairs and manage economic, cultural and social affairs through various channels and in various ways in accordance with the law." [According to] Article 27: "All state organs and functionaries must rely on the support of the people, keep in close touch with them, heed their opinions and suggestions, accept their supervision, and work hard to serve them." [According to] Article 41: "Citizens of the People's Republic of China have the right to criticize and make suggestions to any state organ or functionary."
Article 1 of the Regulations of the PRC on the Disclosure of Government Information states: "These regulations are hereby formulated in order to ensure that citizens, legal persons, and other organizations obtain government information in accordance with the law, enhance transparency of the work of government, promote administration in accordance with the law, and bring into full play the role of government information in serving the people's production and livelihood and their economic and social activities." Article 9 [states]: "Administrative agencies should disclose on their own initiative government information that satisfies any one of the following basic criteria: (1) Information that involves the basic interests of citizens, legal persons, or other organizations; (2) Information that needs to be extensively known or participated in by the general public; (3) Information that shows the structure, function, and working procedures of and other matters relating to the administrative agency."
In the National Human Rights Action Plan (2009–2010) issued by the State Council of the PRC in April 2009, Part Two on the protection of civil and political rights states: "In the period 2009–2010, China will continue to strengthen work to improve democracy and the rule of law, improving systems for democracy, diversifying the forms of democracy and expanding the channels of democracy, strengthening the protection of civil rights in the execution of administrative laws and in judicial practices, and raising the level of ensuring people's civil and political rights." Section Five on the right to be informed [states]: "The Chinese government will make more efforts to keep the public informed of government affairs and improve relevant laws and regulations so as to guarantee citizens' right of information....By implementing the Regulations on the Disclosure of Government Information, the state will make comprehensive, regular assessments of the work of the government and relevant departments about the disclosure of government information, examine and urge organizations responsible for public affairs management to make public information related to government affairs, and in accordance with the law call to account personnel in charge and people directly responsible who violate the Regulations. Local regulations concerning how to make known to the public government affairs will be improved."
At the same time, the governing [Communist] party, in its report from the 17th Party Congress, clearly [articulated its intention to] safeguard the people's right to information, right to participate, right to expression, and right to supervision, and that government power should operate under the light of day.
II. Why this request for disclosure of information is being made
The RTL system has been controversial from the beginning, and as a citizen of the PRC, in the face of this institution that violates the Constitution of the PRC and the law, in which a decision to deprive an individual of his or her liberty can be made without any legal or public procedure or trial, and for which the administration is not public and frequently offers no manner of judicial remedy, one shudders in fear at such a system which during its long period of existence threatens the personal liberty of every citizen at any time. Although the applicant has to date never suffered harm from RTL, I have always been clear about the principle that "when one man is enslaved, all are not free."
If the RTL system is to continue on as usual, the following initiatives and efforts by China in the area of rule of law and human rights will all amount to empty words:
In 1999, [the phrase] "ruling the country in accordance with the law" was written into the Constitution of the PRC. In 2004, the safeguarding of human rights was written into the Constitution of the PRC in Article 33, which states: "The state respects and safeguards human rights."
In 2000, the National People's Congress passed the Legislation Law of the PRC, clarifying that "coercive measures and penalties involving deprivations of citizens' political rights or restriction of their personal liberty" shall "only be governed by law."
In 1996, the National People's Congress passed the Administrative Penalty Law of the PRC, clarifying that "administrative penalties involving the restriction of personal liberty shall only be created by law."
In a speech to commemorate the 30th anniversary of [the policy of] opening and reform, the ruling [Communist] party general secretary Hu Jintao said, "Don't pointlessly create trouble" (bu zheteng). Everyone knows that the RTL system was an illegal product of the "pointless trouble" (zheteng) created during China's special anti-rightist history. Today, "don't pointlessly create trouble" has increasingly become national consensus.
In the introduction to the April 2009 National Human Rights Action Plan (2009–2010), it is written: "The realization of human rights in the broadest sense has been a long-cherished ideal of mankind and also a long-pursued goal of the Chinese government and people....The National Human Rights Action Plan (2009–2010) is a document explaining the policy of the Chinese government with regard to the promotion and protection of human rights during the period....Governments and government departments at all levels shall make the action plan part of their responsibilities and proactively implement it in line with the principle of 'each performing its own functions and sharing out the work and responsibilities.'" In Part Two on the protection of civil and political rights, section one on rights of the person states: "China will improve its preventative and relief measures to protect citizens' personal rights in every process of law-enforcement and judicial work....The state prohibits illegal detention by law-enforcement personnel....Those who are responsible for illegal detention....shall be subjected to inquiry and punished if found culpable."
III. The significance that raising and resolving the issues raised in the request above will have for makers of national policy, law enforcement officials, and citizens in the current period of social transformation:
From "Legal basis for this application for disclosure of information" and "Why this request for disclosure of information is being made" in Sections I and II above, it is clear:
The RTL system is incompatible with the letter and spirit of China's current constitution and laws and the policies of the ruling [Communist] party. Making the matters in this application public to the applicant and to society in accordance with the law not only fulfills the MOJ's responsibility as a government department to make information public, it also allows facts to speak for themselves and provide policymakers and all of society with the important facts and information necessary in the debate over whether to retain or abolish the RTL system.
[As the saying goes:] "He who cannot manage a single matter will be unable to manage the overall situation." The RTL system and its current implementation have bearing on the vital interests of the people, citizens' supreme rights to life and liberty, and the fundamental difference between good and bad governance. The more a government relies on rule of law, the more it establishes its legitimacy and authority; the more it despises rule of law, its legitimacy and authority will of course be in doubt.
Facing this transitional period in society in which class divisions and conflicts are intensifying daily, rule of law is the only way for a society to solve its own conflicts and [achieve] harmonious, non-violent, sustainable development. The minority of bureaucratic elites who are unwilling to be bound by the law and arbitrarily use such unjust, unlawful methods as RTL to control the people will ultimately bring about negative consequences such as popular resentment and collapse of the regime. At this moment, all of society should stand together and support the government's ongoing efforts to promote rule of law, protect all fundamental civil rights, treat citizens who have been sent to RTL in accordance with the law, and work tirelessly in pursuit of the speedy restoration of personal liberty and provision of fair treatment to all citizens who have been sent to RTL. Doing this will allow even more citizens—including citizens who have been sent to RTL—to become positive forces promoting social reconciliation, harmony, and order and make a historical contribution towards the eventual establishment of a rule-of-law society and the realization of long-term stability!
CC: National People's Congress Standing Committee, State Council, National Human Rights Action Plan Leading Unit
Document Two: Response from the Ministry of Justice to Xie Yanyi
We have received the request to disclose government information you sent to the Ministry of Justice. Our response is as follows:
I. The number of RTL facilities, the number of individuals sent to RTL, and how RTL inmates are being treated is already open government information that has been made public on the MOJ website.
II. The number of individuals sentenced to RTL who have not accepted the RTL decision and have filed petitions for administrative review and the acceptance and success rates of administrative lawsuits all do not fall under the MOJ's scope of administrative responsibility.
III. Statistics on the categories of individuals sentenced to RTL is a state secret, and the MOJ administrative organ does not have the statistics you have requested.
IV. The other information requested falls under the category of state secrets and cannot be disclosed.
Ministry of Justice of the PRC (seal)
June 3, 2009