Wednesday, June 19, 2013

RTL Reform Underway, but Undercover

Photo credit: 21st Century Business Herald

China’s leaders have made clear that reform of the current reeducation through labor (RTL) system will be rolled out some time in 2013, but there has been a noticeable lack of detail regarding what sort of institution, if any, might be put forward as a replacement. Yet RTL facilities in at least four provinces (Liaoning, Jiangsu, Jilin, and Hunan) have been quietly taking formal steps to transition into compulsory drug treatment centers, 21st Century Business Herald reports. All of those sent for non-drug-related offenses to one Liaoning RTL facility were released earlier this month—regardless of their time left to serve, according to a petitioner released from the facility and quoted in the Guangzhou newspaper.* Prominent rights lawyer and free speech advocate Pu Zhiqiang told the paper that he has not discovered any new RTL cases this year.

The report says that by May Jiangsu had transitioned all of its RTL facilities into drug treatment centers but that an employee at one Jiangsu facility denied it would stop accepting people sentenced to RTL this year. Underscoring the low-key nature of these transformation efforts, the report notes that officials in Jiangsu warned about the need to prevent media speculation and manage public opinion in order to facilitate the process of reforming RTL.

Writing in Xi’an’s Chinese Business View, commentator Han Fudong expresses exasperation about this low-key approach and wonders why officials would not be more willing to use the reform process—which has widespread public support—to burnish the government’s legitimacy. One reason behind the reticence, he argues, is that officials may worry that the discussion could extend beyond the particular institution of RTL and touch on other, more sensitive subjects—the overriding priority given to stability, for example, or the need for deeper political reform.

In many ways, this fear is itself realized by Han’s essay (translated below), which concludes with a pointed critique of the current political system and its failure to be more democratic and accountable. The “real issue that needs to be faced,” he writes, is the need for a new “institutional design,” one that would inspire officials to take more risks in reform in order to satisfy public desires and expectations.

* [Updated on June 20, 2013] The petitioner, 63-year-old Zhao Zhenjia (赵振甲), has reportedly been held incommunicado since June 9.

Why Cover Up the Abolition of RTL?

Han Fudong, Chinese Business View
June 19, 2013

Following the exposure of several notorious cases, it seems that RTL has reached the point where it’s like a rat scurrying in the street, with everyone shouting to kill it. Its flaws of illegality, the disproportionate [nature of its punishment], and the ways it can be abused in the interests of stability preservation and politics have already been given a full airing by public opinion and highlighted its true nature as an over-reach of power. According to media reports, Liaoning, Jiangsu, Jilin, Hunan, and other provinces have all begun to transition RTL facilities into compulsory drug treatment centers, and Jiangsu has made clear that it completed this reform process at the end of May. In Liaoning’s Chaoyang RTL Center, individuals whose RTL commitments were not yet up have all been released early. Lawyers say that they haven’t seen any RTL cases so far this year.

The abandonment of RTL should be a good thing, something that public opinion supports and that helps the government build legitimacy. But ever since the beginning of this year, when Yunnan took the lead to stop making RTL decisions for acts involving endangering state security, persistent and disruptive petitioning, and damaging leaders’ image, decision-makers seem to have no intention of making public declarations about reform or reveal even once that those in charge have an impulse to reform themselves. It’s been said that behind Yunnan’s abolition of RTL is a “timetable” and “roadmap” on unified arrangements from the Central Politico-Legal Commission, but to date we don’t have a complete picture of these plans. Reform of RTL in Jiangsu and other provinces has also been carried out in a low-key way. In a quarterly meeting on unified political work in Jiangsu RTL (drug rehab) [centers] held in April, it was emphasized that “we must highlight positive guidance, play close attention to online public sentiment concerning the police, guard against malicious speculation by the media, and construct a conducive environment for positive, stable promotion of reform of the RTL system.”

Just like petitioners, media and public opinion have become targets for prevention. For certain public authorities that do not know how to control their power, the laziest method is just to conceal all of their activities. They don’t need outside praise, so they try to avoid any sort of criticism. Since they lack confidence, they fear that the antennas of the media will tap in to other areas external to reform and stimulate a series of unimaginable troubles. The deeper reason is that they have no need to be accountable to public opinion. Those in charge lack effective dialogue with the public, and orders from the center are the only things that fill them with awe.

This is a cause of current crisis in China. Many times, certain agencies rely on a series of figures and formalities to showcase their achievements and show that “everything looks great.” But they don’t make full use of specific reform measures to enhance their own legitimacy.

By restricting citizens of their liberty without a judicial decision, RTL violates the constitution and the Legislation Law. People are sent to RTL because of violations that don’t meet the threshold for criminal punishment (the lightest of which is three months of public supervision) but can instead by locked up for three years of forced labor. This is clearly disproportionate. Many localities rely on this illegal and disproportionate RTL system to crack down on petitioners and dissidents (like the three groups that Yunnan has stopped sending to RTL). It became common long ago to use RTL to solidify the authority and interests of individual officials in the name of maintaining stability. The anger and grievances [directed at RTL] should be cause for an immediate decision to abolish it and take the opportunity to showcase the courage to rectify officials and respect human rights. Why is it necessary to be so secretive?

Besides the reasons stated above, the more fundamental crux of the problem may be that it is difficult to make a complete break with the history of the RTL system. There is an organic continuity between past and present, so the abandonment of RTL would naturally be seen as a kind of accountability for certain activities of RTL facilities at various levels. Perhaps we need to consider a kind of institutional design that would allow those in charge to be both full of confidence and also responsible to public opinion. This is a real issue that needs to be faced.