Wednesday, January 9, 2013

RTL Abolition: “Only a Matter of Time”?

Secretary Meng Jianzhu (center) at the meeting of the Central Politico-Legal Committee, January 7, 2013. Photo credit:

On Monday, law enforcement authorities from throughout the country gathered in Beijing to attend the annual National Conference on Politico-Legal Work, which was led by the new head of the Central Politico-Legal Commission, Meng Jianzhu. From this meeting, an announcement was made that four areas had been selected to be the focus of reforms: reeducation through labor (RTL), the household registration (hukou) and petitioning systems, and the way in which authority is exercised in the judiciary.

Secretary Meng Jianzhu. Photo credit:

News about changes to RTL spread quickly on the Internet. Although few specifics have been revealed, there are signs that the current RTL system may “cease” operation before the year is over. Cessation may simply mean curtailing the ability of Chinese police to send more people to RTL without affecting the fate of those already in custody, and it appears to stop short of widespread demands to abolish the entire system.

It is not surprising that RTL has been slated for “further reform” in 2013, but the big question is: what comes next? For months, it has been clear that the end is near for RTL as we know it. Public opinion galvanized against the system late last year following the exposure of a series of high-profile cases involving the wrongful use of RTL, and there were various indications of high-level consensus about the need to do something about the system. Efforts to set up a system of “corrections” have been underway for many years, but relatively little is known about what this might entail and whether it will simply repackage current problems and give them the imprimatur of law, as is arguably the case with the addition of “non-residential residential surveillance” in the newly revised Criminal Procedure Law.

Such concerns are evident in much of the initial response to Monday’s announcement, including in the following opinion piece by commentator Zhang Ruoyu published in the Xi’an newspaper, Chinese Business View. Many in China want to believe that their country’s new political leaders actually intend to carry out wide-ranging reforms on the basis of protecting human rights and promoting rule of law, but nagging skepticism remains. Whatever system replaces RTL will inevitably face challenges in terms of enforcement and accountability because, until the government discards a mentality that prizes social stability above all else, law-enforcement authorities will likely continue to feel justified in using a wide variety of measures—including legal and extralegal tactics—to neutralize threats to social order.

Deposing RTL Lacks Only the Puncture of a Paper Window
Zhang Ruoyu, Chinese Business View
January 8, 2013

The National Conference on Politico-Legal Work held on January 7 set out the thinking on work for 2013 and established furthering reform of the RTL system, reform of work related to petitioning on legal and rights claims, reform of the mechanisms for exercising power in the judicial system, and reform of the household registration system as the “four reforms” that will be the focus of work in 2013. Among these, furthering reform of the RTL system is without a doubt the item that has attracted the most attention.

Even though “furthering reform of the RTL system,” like a lot of official pronouncements, is rather vague and grandiose, there is still a voice in our hearts that repeatedly reminds us that this time is different from the past. The notorious RTL system may have reached the eve of its dethroning and we may see it topple at any time.

Since its origins in 1957, the RTL system has existed in China for over half a century. We concede that this system had some positive effects within its particular historical context. But today, in a country that strives to build rule of law, in an era where millions await the deposing of the RTL system, and in a historical context in which the RTL system has caused innumerable rule-of-law and human-rights disasters, there is no longer any reason to allow this system, a source of national shame, to continue to exist.

At the very least, the RTL system violates the Constitution, the Legislation Law, the Administrative Penalty Law, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the Chinese government has signed. The only way to restore the dignity and honor of China’ rule-of-law system is by deposing this “draconian law” that everyone has been calling out to overturn.

Countries with rule of law must pay attention to legality in all matters—this is the bottom line of the bottom line. We cannot build a rule-of-law country by means of brazenly illegal methods. The existence of the RTL system is like a poisonous thorn within China’s legal system, bringing disgrace and serious harm to China’s various efforts along the path toward rule of law. There is no way to [deal with] the odious stench and clearly wicked nature of a draconian law, but to abolish it in one stroke.

If, in disregard of the current political situation and public opinion, the RTL system were to continue to be maintained or the public deceived by a mere name-switch, then it would be like a nightmare that just won’t go away, one that repeatedly violates people’s belief in rule of law and hides its murderous intentions all along the path towards the good life that people seek. No matter what, this kind of nightmare has no place in a “Beautiful China.”

We believe that consensus has been reached at the highest levels. This National Conference on Politico-Legal Work has responded positively to the ardent wishes of the public. Even though the wording remains cautious as ever, we have reason to believe that a decision has been made. It’s only a matter of time and it won’t be too long. This is because for this country to have made it to today one had to dare to progress and bravely resist retreat in order to arrive at a civilized [stage]. This is a responsibility that cannot be left to others in another era.

Deposing the RTL system lacks only the puncture of a paper window. One must not hesitate; one need not hesitate. As the death of citizen Sun Zhigang brought about the end of the system of custody and repatriation 10 years ago, we similarly hope that the suffering of [RTL’s] victims will bring about abolition of the system of RTL, marking another glorious moment. If, as it is said, suffering is a kind of blessing, then China is sufficiently qualified to win this historic blessing.