Men assemble Ethernet cables at the Shijiazhuang RTL Center, May 23, 2012. Photo credit: He You/CFP
Individual miscarriages of justice have helped to turn Chinese public opinion against the decades-old form of administrative detention known as reeducation through labor (RTL or laojiao). Most scrutiny has been focused on the arbitrary manner in which police determine sentencing. Considerably less attention has been paid to the myriad problems inside RTL facilities.
The veil was briefly lifted earlier this year when a Chinese magazine published a lengthy article exposing the dehumanizing conditions in a women’s RTL center in Masanjia, Liaoning Province. Domestic censors quickly attempted to minimize the impact of the article that revealed torture, frequent hunger strikes, and exploitative labor practices.
Coercive labor got fuller exposure in May in an article published by Southern Weekly (translated below). Providing accounts from several former correctional officers, the article looks at the way in which “unwritten rules” conditioned the labor experience at one RTL facility in Sichuan Province and ultimately demonstrates how economic incentives are behind a number of forms of corruption and mistreatment endemic within the RTL system. Stamping out low-level corruption is one of many reasons for central authorities to thoroughly reform RTL, but the abundance of licit and illicit economic opportunities for local authorities also helps explain why there has been longstanding resistance to reform.
Confessions of Disgraced RTL Officers
RTL Centers: Labor First?
Southern Weekly, May 2, 2013
[Indented, italic text is in the voice of the interviewed officers.—Trans.]
Editor’s note: The criminal prosecution of five police officers for embezzling “state-owned assets”—actually, the revenues produced by people laboring in RTL—revealed problems such as revenue targets, overtime labor, and bribery at one RTL facility. Under the influence of interests, the function of “education and reform first, labor and production second” was turned on its head. Southern Weekly found three of the officers and conducted separate interviews with them, cross-checking their accounts against each other and verifying those accounts against the relevant legal documents.
“‘Laojiao’ puts labor first and education second. This idea clearly violates RTL policies but everyone thinks this way. [They] probably felt that the name ‘laojiao’ wasn’t so good so they changed it to ‘apprenticeship.’ But this is only a change in name, like calling a prostitute a ‘sex worker’ instead of a ‘whore.’”
On April 26, 2013, the final verdict was handed down in a case involving a “den” of corruption inside an RTL facility in Luzhou, Sichuan. Five RTL officers from the Luzhou RTL Center were held criminally responsible for embezzling state assets, corruption, and taking bribes. Earlier, the appeal of another RTL officer given a suspended sentence for “taking bribes” was rejected by a court of second instance.
All six RTL officers appealed. Three officers involved confirmed the facts of the case to Southern Weekly and said that, to a certain degree, the problems involved were universal.
RTL Detainee Death by Drinking “Alcohol”
The incident came about because of the death of an RTL detainee. The person was named Hu Minghong; he died after drinking industrial alcohol. Perhaps you might find it odd: how does a person in RTL come upon industrial alcohol? There are clear regulations strictly forbidding alcohol from being brought into detention facilities. The underlying reason [that alcohol got into the facility] is actually economic interest—the RTL facility’s own economic interest.
At the time, the facility was processing liquor boxes for a company. At first, they used sparkling wine as a cleaning agent, but later they felt that was too expensive. In order to reduce costs, they switched to industrial alcohol. This accident occurred as a consequence.
After the six officers got in trouble, an official from the provincial justice department was overheard at a meeting lamenting that Luzhou “was not unified.” There was profound meaning behind this. Although similar incidents are very sensitive, generally speaking, as long as people “are unified” internally and do not make a big fuss, it will not lead to anything. Take our Luzhou RTL Center for example, as early as 2003 a detainee died while being “hired out,” and in 2005 a man named Xia Tian unsuccessfully tried to commit suicide by jumping off a building. Neither case led to anything. Last year, a person detained at the [Luzhou] Public Security Bureau’s drug treatment center died under unnatural circumstances. Three officers were indicted for dereliction of duty, which seems quite serious, but not a single officer received criminal punishment.
Originally, what happened to Hu Minghong was also kept under wraps. After a “humanitarian compensation” payment of over 20,000 yuan, his family did not complain. Because “effective measures” were taken and there were no public consequences, people in charge of the Luzhou RTL Center even applied for a commendation. After nearly a year, it was said that there was a dispute between higher-ups and facility officials over personnel appointments, which led to the disclosure of this incident. Subsequently, out came [the news] of collective corruption and bribe-taking by officers.
The Luzhou RTL Center was established in 1998, one of two RTL facilities in Sichuan to be run by prefectural-level cities. In 2009, it added the sign “Luzhou Compulsory Drug Treatment Center.” There are more than 50 correctional officers at the facility. Before the incident, there were around 200 people in RTL, the vast majority of whom were there for compulsory drug treatment.
The procuratorate found that at the beginning of 2011 the Luzhou Compulsory Drug Treatment Center signed a liquor-box production contract with Luzhou Texing Printing Company Ltd whereby the people in drug treatment would process liquor boxes. The enterprise used industrial alcohol to replace the cleaning agent. Hu Minghong took some industrial alcohol back to his cell, mixed it with water, and drank it, leading to his death by poisoning. Three others in drug treatment were treated in the hospital for poisoning.
One year after the incident, Chen Jinrui, the former head of the Luzhou RTL Center’s Second Brigade, was indicted for dereliction of duty. He told Southern Weekly that, according to regulations, alcohol, as a flammable and explosive material, cannot be brought into detention facilities. But, for the sake of production, “we did this for several years.”
After the death of Hu Minghong, there was no autopsy. The local hospital issued a diagnosis report listing five causes of death, none of which included alcohol poisoning. The family did not “make a fuss.”
In the trial of first instance, the prosecution’s charges against Chen Jinrui were not accepted by the court because Hu Minghong’s cause of death was never ascertained. Chen Jinrui was not the officer on duty at the time of the incident. He believes that even if Hu Minghong really did die as a result of alcohol poisoning, he should only be held responsible as the person in charge and not be indicted as the only officer involved in the case. In his view, things turned out as they did because of “competing relationships.”
Wages Defined as “State Assets”
I’m confident that concealing funds is a common phenomenon among low-level officers inside the RTL system. The only differences are in form and degree. You could call it “corruption,” you could also call it a “bonus,” because no one knows for sure how to classify this money. Put simply, the funds are actually earned by the RTL detainees, but they’re treated as “finances.” As far as whom the “finances” belong to—the finance bureau, the RTL facility, the production brigade, or a particular official—this is a gray area and it is uncertain. This uncertainty then becomes a hole that can be exploited.
At the Luzhou RTL Center, according to regulations, “labor payments” made by enterprises must be handed over by the basic-level production brigades to the center, the center must hand it over to the finance bureau; then the finance bureau returns a portion to the center, and the center returns a portion to the production brigades. From the perspective of the production brigades, they always hope to receive a little bit more because they’re the ones with the most worries and who take on the risk. So, when they complete their production tasks, they reserve a portion [of the revenues]. Besides using some for activity fees of the production brigade, the rest is distributed to officers in the form of a bonus in order to reward them for working actively. This is an unwritten rule.
Originally, the enterprise signs a production agreement with the RTL center, but it’s the brigade that manages things concretely and the labor payments must pass through the brigade on the way to the RTL center. The bosses of the enterprises are all smart guys who understand that the “county official is not as good as the person really in charge.” If I get you, an official at an RTL center, on my side in order to sign a production agreement, this is only the first step. You are not the one in charge of production, effectiveness, and quality. So, I have to win over the people below who are truly overseeing the production line and arranging production in order for [them] to get things done for me. By “get things done,” I mean pressing the RTL detainees to work and make money. To [the enterprises] and from the perspective of production, the brigade head is more important than the head of the RTL center, so they acquiesce in and even take the initiative to help the brigade conceal revenue. This is definitely not an isolated phenomenon.
In the corruption of the two production brigades in this instance, basically every officer got a cut. In the Second Brigade, each person got more than 10,000 [yuan], and in the Compulsory Drug Treatment Center it was over 20,000. It’s unclear how much each person got specifically. This is because there are no account books, the officers did not sign a note of receipt when they took their money, the two sides didn’t see each other, and the payments were made very quietly. The brigade leaders purposefully manufactured these circumstances, seemingly out of [concerns about] “security,” but it was actually also to make it possible for the higher-ups to be even more corrupt. This makes it even easier for them to line their own pockets.
You think that during this entire process the superiors at these centers don’t know what’s going on? I don’t believe it. As far as the brigade is concerned, the center never allocated any funds for office expenses or any other expenses. If an RTL detainee gets sick, the brigade has to find the money for him to see a doctor. Now that the problem’s come out, they call it “reserving” and “concealing.” But don’t forget this fact: the brigade must be prepared to invite higher-ups to a meal, to a banquet, to [watch detainees] doing drills. This is a huge expense, even the primary expense. Last time, the audit bureau asked us, “Do you know how much your brigade head spent inviting center higher-ups to a meal?” I said the brigade head told us afterwards it was 5,000 yuan. The audit bureau said: “5,000 yuan? It was more than 20,000 yuan! There were two tables, 10,000 yuan per table.” That’s three months of my salary.
I’m someone at the brigade level with no other source of funding. You’re an RTL center official always having these meals. How much per meal? How much per bottle of liquor? How many bottles? Roughly how much are we spending? Add it up and you’ll understand. Did [I] come by this money legally? Can a person with ordinary logical thinking not be clear about this? I can’t believe that officials are not as smart as me—they’re definitely smarter. You just have to analyze it a bit and you’ll discover that the source of the money is problematic. Police officers wouldn’t use their wages to invite officials out to eat, and we don’t have any office funds. As an official, it should be easy for you to figure it out. Once you’ve figured it out, you tacitly acquiesce or at least you don’t raise any objections.
The procuratorate found that the Luzhou RTL Center signed a contract with Luzhou Meishun Packaging Materials Ltd (hereafter “Meishun”) in February 2011 to produce liquor boxes. The Luzhou RTL Center assigned the production tasks to two “production brigades”—the drug treatment center and the Second Brigade. The heads of the two production brigades had talks with Meishun Deputy Manager Gong Junming and decided to conceal a portion of the product from the RTL facility each month and hand it over to Meishun under a false name in exchange for cash payments. In total, they held back and embezzled more than 700,000 yuan. Aside from a portion that was used for the office expenses of the two brigades, the rest was privately divided up between the 18 RTL officers of the two brigades. Each of the officers from the Second Brigade took in over 10,000 yuan, and the officers from the drug treatment center each got more than 30,000 yuan. Full- and deputy brigade leaders at the drug treatment center each got an additional 40,000 yuan on top of the over 30,000 yuan. Other than the five who were prosecuted and convicted for having primary responsibility, none of the other officers who divided the money were sanctioned in any way and merely had to refund some of the money.
In the course of the trial, there was a major argument between the prosecution and defense over how to characterize these embezzled “labor payments.” The defense attorneys maintained that the so-called “labor payments” were income from operations involving production by persons in compulsory drug treatment and arranged in violation of relevant RTL regulations and in the absence of a business license by the Luzhou RTL Center and others. It therefore constituted illegal proceeds, and the prosecution’s charge of “corruption” was not tenable.
The court of first instance agreed with the defense and convicted the five RTL corrections officers of embezzling state assets, which carries a lighter sentence. The defendants and their attorneys rejected the idea of treating “illegal proceeds” as “state assets” and appealed. The prosecution stuck to its charge of corruption and also appealed.
The court of second instance chose to split the difference by upholding the first-instance verdict against the three RTL officers but added on three years’ imprisonment for corruption to the sentences given to the two drug treatment center officials who split the more than 40,000 yuan in additional payments.
According to revelations from several RTL officers connected to the case, the office funds held back by the brigades were primarily used to invite officials from the facility and other functional offices to meals and recreation. An official from the RTL center also used the funds to pay his party dues.
“Production Definitely Comes First”
Whether it’s money given to compensate the relatives of Hu Minghong or money gotten through corruption and embezzling by officers, at the end of the day this is money that is being made by RTL detainees. There’s a deep-seated mentality in the RTL system: “Laojiao” puts labor first and education second. This idea clearly violates RTL policies but everyone thinks this way. Later, those up above probably felt that the name “laojiao” wasn’t so good, so they changed it to “apprenticeship.” But the reality hasn’t changed. This is only a change in name, like calling a prostitute a “sex worker” instead of a “whore.” The reality is that we force RTL detainees to work and make money [for us]; that’s what every RTL center does.
Whether it’s the RTL centers or the officers, they all lack money. Even if they didn’t lack money, there’s so much idle labor in the RTL centers, who wouldn’t want to use it to make some money? The only questions are how much to make and how to make it. There have never been clear regulations, or there are regulations but they have never been seriously implemented. For example, the Ministry of Justice long ago prohibited RTL facilities from setting revenue targets and required them to spend half of their time on education and half on labor. But none of the RTL facilities I know of can do that. How can you not have revenue targets? Labor by RTL detainees is passive labor—who would do it voluntarily? And once you have revenue targets, it’s impossible [to spend] “half the day on labor and half the day on education.”
For the RTL centers, production definitely comes first. Every unit puts its pursuit of economic interests first. Under this sort of policy, the lawful rights and interests of RTL detainees inevitably cannot be protected.
Once there are production targets, the management of the RTL centers becomes intimately entwined with production. The RTL facility gives a target to the brigade. If they can’t meet it, the officers get their allowances docked; if they surpass it, they get a bonus. The brigade gives a target to the RTL detainees. If they can’t meet it they get docked points, and docked points means “term extensions.”
Each time there’s a production task, the center will give the basic-level brigades production targets. For example, according to a 2011 facility document, in processing liquor boxes for a Luzhou liquor company, the minimum production target was set at 350, which means that, calculating per person, each month each person must complete 350 yuan of production. This figure doesn’t look very high, but, on the one hand, the factory will set the unit price very low and, on the other hand, detainees who serve as group- or team leaders or who run the warehouse don’t participate in production or generate value. But that 350-yuan target is calculated per person, so it must be equalized through [the work of] others, raising their targets to compensate. If the RTL detainees in the facility want to make this target, on average they must work seven or eight hours per day. In all of Sichuan, a production target of 350 is probably rather low. In RTL facilities in more developed areas, the target might be 800 to 1,000.
Of the surplus exceeding the 350-yuan production target, the facility returns 10 percent to us in the basic-level brigades to serve as the production withholding bonus. Of that, a portion is to be distributed among the RTL detainees to allow them to improve their food. This is only symbolic—each person gets an average of eight to 10 yuan, and it’s not in cash. For the amount exceeding 500 yuan, the facility returns 20 percent. We later calculated that according to the facility’s return policies, each officer got 200 yuan each month. We felt that was too little, so the brigade began concealing part of the revenues so that everyone could get a bigger cut.
A target of 350 yuan is only the lowest requirement. Whether it’s the RTL centers or the brigades, we all encouraged the RTL detainees to produce more, because producing more was in the interest of the center, the brigades, and the officers. Of course it was even more in the company’s interest. Why did these companies cooperate with the RTL facilities? In order to reduce their labor costs. For example, on this project if the company wanted to hire workers to produce the liquor boxes, they would have to pay wages of at least 1,500 yuan—plus, they’d be responsible for social security and worker’s compensation insurance: that’s 2000 yuan at least. But the company could hire four RTL detainees for that 2,000 yuan. The value created by an RTL detainee and an ordinary worker is the same. That means that the actual cost is only one quarter as much. You can imagine how huge this makes the profits. So, it’s the system that makes things this way.
The problems would get exposed sooner or later. The only way for the RTL facility to pursue even greater profits is to extend the detainees’ working hours. On this point, the detainees understand things very clearly. They’ve analyzed how many hours they work in a day and can calculate how much output value they create. They might learn a little about the unit price of the product from people at the factory and then figure out how much money [the company] is making and compare that to how much they are actually making. For instance, this year we brought in 100,000 yuan in revenue. According to the 10 percent ratio, that’s 10,000 yuan. The officers take a cut, probably leaving 5,000. If there’s some underreporting, some of that cut won’t get returned, probably meaning a return of only 2,500. There’s a gap there, and they can figure out the problem. Even more important, since you’ve exaggerated the detainees’ labor strength, they might start to feel resentment, [thinking that if you work us] too hard we’ll join together and report the problem which may lead to exposure.
Since its birth, the RTL system, which is based on the idea of “education, reform, and rescue,” has added another important function—getting detainees to make money for RTL facilities. There are many ways to make money—some set up their own enterprises, others work for [existing] enterprises doing processing. The Luzhou RTL Center falls under the latter category.
The two production brigades involved in the corruption case at the Luzhou RTL Center were considered the facility’s “backbone” whose “contributions” to the facility reached their peak in 2011. Together, they brought in a total of 1 million yuan in revenue for the facility, each exceeding their targets and more than doubling their performance in the previous year.
Driven by interest, the RTL detainees were compelled to work overtime. One former detainee surnamed Qiu who was at the Luzhou RTL Center’s Compulsory Drug Treatment Center from 2010 to 2011 told Southern Weekly that he had to process 3,000 to 4,000 [sic] liquor boxes per day, with average work hours of more than nine hours and up to 12 hours per day at the most. (The Ministry of Justice requires that work hours not exceed six hours per day.) If they didn’t complete their tasks, they would be beaten. As for living conditions, he summed it up with [an idiom referring to food that means]: winter melon, tomatoes, pumpkin, and cabbage. Besides this, medication and items for daily use were much more expensive inside the RTL Center. “Outside, Liu Wei Di Huang Pills are eight yuan a bottle. Inside, they’re 20 yuan a bottle.” According to Qiu, detainees in the compulsory drug treatment center once carried out a collective hunger strike to protest the labor and living conditions, but they were ultimately unsuccessful.
Among the six RTL officers implicated in the case, the one considered to have been most “wronged” is Chen Jinrui, who was given a suspended sentence. As the brigade leader, his cut of the revenues was no more than the other ordinary corrections officers, but because he was in charge of the brigade, he was sentenced.
Unwritten Rules for Release
Since there are production targets and these targets are directly linked to officers’ incomes, this of course leads to RTL detainees working overtime. Working overtime of course causes the detainees to react and this reaction leads to the employment of high-pressure policies such as beatings and [other] corporal punishment. This forms a vicious cycle. Thus, as soon as [one] is sent to RTL he or she begins to think about getting out early, which gives birth to another sort of corruption.
In the RTL facility, it’s been a longstanding and relatively common unwritten rule that corrections officers help detainees to be released early in exchange for benefits. This also occurs in prisons, but it’s much harder to carry out [in prison] because [sentence reductions] require a court ruling. It’s easier in the RTL facilities, which mostly use medical parole or non-custodial forms—for example, shifting (someone in drug treatment) from compulsory drug treatment to community drug treatment.
This time, two corrections officers at the Luzhou RTL Center were convicted of taking bribes. Actually, it would be more accurate to call it fraud than taking bribes. In fact, some RTL detainees are eligible for release according to the regulations but they don’t realize it. So, when you come to find me and ask whether I can help get you out, I’m happy to take full advantage of the opportunity. The guys who drank industrial alcohol with Hu Minghong were like that. After one person died, the people in charge of the center worried that others were going to die in the detention center [sic] and wished they could get rid of them quickly. But the detainees, themselves, were unaware of this and were willing to pay money [to get released early]. From the perspective of the officers who did this kind of thing, it became a habit to accept money from people because it was always being done. They wouldn’t let you leave without paying, even if it was time for you to leave.
Transferring people who used drugs to community drug treatment was always done on the grounds of illness, and it required a very complex process. You needed to get diagnoses from the RTL center’s clinic and the Luzhou People’s Hospital and then get final approval from the public security bureau. This was a complicated process involving people in charge as well as public security, because public security was in charge of both sending you to RTL and releasing you. There were only two RTL officers implicated in this case for taking bribes, which shows they didn’t investigate very deeply: this only scratches the surface.
At the time of investigating Hu Minghong’s death, the Luzhou Justice [Bureau] accidentally got a lead that these two RTL officers were taking bribes. The Matan District People’s Procuratorate in Luzhou found that between February 2011 and January 2012, Luzhou RTL Center Drug Treatment Center Director Li X and corrections officer Yuan XX conspired to use their positions and employ measures like fabricating medical records to enable four people in compulsory drug treatment to be shifted to community drug treatment, for which they received a total of 78,700 yuan.
The den of corruption concealed for many years inside the RTL facility was thus finally exposed. Eighteen officers were suspected of collectively embezzling revenues, with six ultimately being convicted.
After the case was uncovered, the Luzhou RTL Center was for a time unable to operate normally, and it was only recently that it again began accepting people for drug treatment. Southern Weekly learned through investigation that in the 15 years since the Luzhou RTL Center was established, three different facility directors have been removed from their posts for various reasons. (Among them, the first facility director “got into trouble” for accepting 1.68 million yuan in “drug treatment fees.”) But as far as pursuing criminal responsibility, this collective “den [of corruption] case” is a first.