Ever since the Chinese Communist Party’s top body in charge of law-enforcement matters signalled that “further reform” of China’s reeducation-through-labor (RTL) system would be carried out this year, there has been a great deal of talk and speculation about what, exactly, might be in store. It seems increasingly likely that steps will be taken this year to bring an end to the current RTL system, although it remains unclear what, if anything, might be put in its place—making celebrations of RTL’s imminent “demise” (feichu) potentially premature.
Yan Zhichan. Photo credit: Guangdong Department of Justice
Yan Zhichan, who heads Guangdong’s Department of Justice (and thus oversees the province’s prisons and RTL facilities) was quoted in the January 29 edition of Southern Daily, a newspaper published by the Guangdong Province Party Committee, saying that the province had “completed all preparatory work” and was waiting for the National People’s Congress Standing Committee to review and approve a plan for reforming RTL. One of the first steps in such a plan is expected to be a “cessation” (tingzhi) in the use of RTL, which Yan explained would entail halting new intakes and releasing those currently in the system at the ends of their terms.
A major part of the “preparatory work” has apparently involved a change in accounting that follows the June 2008 enactment of China’s Anti-Drug Law. The law caused Guangdong to put up new signs at its RTL centers signalling their joint functions as “compulsory drug treatment” facilities. Although compulsory drug treatment continues to occur in existing RTL centers (and those receiving treatment were previously included in officially reported RTL tallies), data is now being disaggregated. According to Southern Daily, nearly 80 percent (14,000) of the more than 18,000 people in RTL in Guangdong are in compulsory drug treatment, while the remaining RTL detainees are mostly there for gambling, soliciting and patronizing sex work, and other public order violations. Nationwide, according to Wang Gongyi, a researcher at the Ministry of Justice, there are more than 60,000 individuals in RTL, and more than 200,000 in compulsory drug treatment. This compares with an aggregated 160,000 RTL detainees, as reported by the Ministry of Justice, in 2008.
Xie xiaodan. Photo credit: Guangzhou Public Security Bureau
Perhaps on a more positive note, Guangzhou Police Chief and Deputy Mayor Xie Xiaodan recently told reporters covering the city’s annual people’s congress meeting that he “fully supports getting rid of [i.e., feichu] RTL,” although he also said that more study needed to be carried out to determine how to deal with minor offenders previously targeted for such administrative detention. Xie was very clear, however, in opposing the use of RTL on “persistent or disruptive petitioners,” and said that RTL should not be used casually to punish critics of the party or the government.
Xie’s comments were welcomed in a January 25 editorial (translated below) in Southern Metropolis Daily, another paper published under the auspices of the Guangdong Party Committee. The editorial focuses its attention on the importance of government tolerance for criticism and critics as a “positive force” for promoting progress. Getting rid of RTL will eliminate a tool that has been used to repress critics in the past, but it does not necessarily mean that the mentality of intolerance for criticism among many in positions of power will go away. To ensure that criticism gets to play its positive role in China, what’s needed are channels to facilitate the expression of diverse and contentious views along with effective measures to restrain the exercise of state power. In this regard, the editors signal their hope that new party leader Xi Jinping—who recently said “power should be restricted by the cage of regulations”—can put his words into action.
Criticism Is a Positive Force for Promoting the Progress of the Nation and Society
Southern Metropolis Daily
January 25, 2013
From time to time, there are bright spots at the Guangzhou People’s Congress.
After discussing the topic of making official’s assets public, Guangzhou Deputy Mayor and Police Chief Xie Xiaodan spoke in an interview with reporters about petitioning that involves litigation and legal disputes and the question of RTL, saying that it was inappropriate to use RTL against persistent and disruptive petitioners, that people who express criticism of the party and the government should not be casually sent to RTL, and that he fully supports getting rid of RTL.
After a series of awful cases, one could say that a kind of consensus on the evils of RTL formed long ago. [With his statement that he] “fully supports getting rid of RTL,” Xie Xiaodan merely makes clear that such a consensus exists. Worth paying more attention to is the fact that, as someone responsible for a vital part of the RTL system, he actually rejects the “instrumental value” upon which RTL has depended.
Xie Xiaodan’s comments reveal the way that RTL has targeted two types of people: first, persistent and disruptive petitioners and second, those who express criticism of the party and the government. Why is RTL “inappropriate” for the first group? Xie Xiaodan said that “we must first address the origins [of the problem] in the legal system and resolve the current problem of petitioning but having a lack of trust in the courts.” It’s easy to see that most of the time petitioners’ preference for petitioning over the courts is the result of the failure of the legal system to work properly. If [disputes] are not, as Xie Xiaodan puts it, “returned to legal channels,” RTL will have no way of containing this so-called persistent and disruptive petitioning. Why should the second group not be “casually sent to RTL”? Although Xie Xiaodan did not elaborate, his emphasis on “human rights principles” shows that he views citizens’ expression of criticism as a kind of fundamental human right.
True, different individuals and groups have different views about criticism. For an ordinary member of society, tolerance for criticism is an expression of magnanimity. But for government, the value of criticism is not nearly so simple: it can help the nation and society to fully “face up to its fears” in the course of moving forward and continuously undergo correction and adjustment in order to correspond to the greatest happiness for the greatest number. In this regard, Jefferson, one of America’s founding fathers, famously said: “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism” [sic, for related discussion, see here]. It is in this respect we maintain that it is sufficient for an individual to show magnanimous tolerance in the face of criticism, but for a government this is not enough. Government should also make institutional arrangements to include criticism and critics and employ criticism as a positive force for promoting the progress of the nation and society.
We believe that there will be more and more people like Xie Xiaodan who don’t approve of “casually sending to RTL” those “people who express criticism of the party and the government,” and believe that, once the Central Politico-Legal Commission issues its decision on furthering reform of the RTL system, an end to the evils of RTL will be just around the corner. But there’s less reason to be optimistic about making institutional arrangements for tolerating criticism and making criticism a positive force for promoting the progress of the nation and society. Every day, right in front of us, there are agencies of state power and civil servants that treat citizen criticism as an affront, and ignore, resist, or even suppress criticism. The public has reason to worry that, even if the weapon of RTL disappears, other kinds of hard or soft violence will become the nightmare of these patriots of “the highest form.”
In suppressing criticism, RTL is only a tool; unless you tame power, there is a danger of this tool being reborn or mutating. To tame power, it is necessary to make efforts to place it in a “cage of regulations.”