Jiang Jiawen rents a place in the Beijing suburbs, far from the bustling city center. He remains there as he seeks his own vision of justice. (Photo credit: Zhou Xifeng)
As part of a major new set of proposals intended to set the agenda for reform under new Chinese leader Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee recently announced its endorsement of plans to eliminate the controversial system of administrative detention known as reeducation through labor (RTL). The announcement has been expected for many months, since party and government leaders first suggested that RTL would be abolished or reformed late last year in the wake of a series of controversial cases involving the practice.
However, it remains to be seen what will be put in place of an RTL system that, despite its many serious flaws, authorities used as a tool for maintaining the all-important tenets of social order and stability. In November 2012, a reporter from Changsha’s Xiaoxiang Morning News attempted, with limited success, to get details about pilot projects in four Chinese cities which were studying possible reform measures. One year later, the details of RTL reform remain hazy. Despite clear signs the existing system is to be eliminated, there exists little information about what sort of institutions and legislation might be introduced to fill the perceived “gap” between the system of public-order penalties and criminal punishment.
Earlier this week, the same reporter from Xiaoxiang Morning News greeted the news of RTL’s impending demise by featuring the story of a man who has spent much of the past eight years locked up in an RTL facility. Jiang Jiawen, was sent to RTL five separate times in connection with his petitioning activity in Beijing—something that local authorities in his hometown of Dandong, Liaoning, take very seriously given the negative impact petitioning has on official evaluations of their performance in maintaining social stability.
The account of Jiang’s experience inside RTL is not as detailed as that published earlier this year about conditions inside Liaoning’s RTL facility for women at Masanjia. Yet his experience confirms the way that, in anticipation of ending RTL, law-enforcement authorities throughout the country had quietly stopped sending people into the camps and began releasing inmates ahead of schedule this past year. By the time he was released in September, Jiang was one of six inmates still remaining in a facility that had once held several hundred.
Jiang says that the facility he was at in Dandong will be devoted to compulsory drug treatment in the future, a shift that has already been undertaken in many RTL facilities throughout the country. But he also notes that guards from his facility were being trained in preparation for their transfer to a system providing “legal education classes,” which hints at one possible method that local authorities may use to detain some of the individuals who would have been sent to RTL in the past.
These “legal education classes” currently have an ambiguous status under Chinese law and, like RTL, have been criticized for arbitrarily depriving individuals of their freedom without due process. Recently, a group of Chinese human rights lawyers called on officials to, among other things, eliminate “detention places used for the illegal deprivation of liberty that have all along been operated outside the legal system.”
This serves as a reminder that, as the Xiaoxiang Morning News put it, “This is not the end, but rather a new beginning.” While China’s new commitment to eliminate RTL is welcome step in the right direction, it is important to remain aware of and to closely examine all forms of unlawful and arbitrary detention in China, as these measures could very well become the new tools with which authorities impose stability in violation of individual rights.
Sent to RTL Five Times, Six Times in the RTL Facility: RTL Inmate Recounts His Past
Xiaoxiang Morning News, November 19, 2013
Editor’s note: On November 12, the Third Plenary Session of the 18th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Committee passed a “Resolution of the CCP Central Committee Concerning Some Major Issues in Comprehensively Deepening Reform,” comprising 60 items in 16 areas. On November 15, the full text of the decision was published. The decision put forward [a plan to] abolish the reeducation through labor (RTL) system, perfect the laws for the punishment and correction of unlawful and criminal acts, and strengthen the community correction system.
Although RTL played a positive role historically, in recent years it has been widely criticized for a series of problems in its implementation.
Amid many years of calls from legal experts and members of the public, this institution of more than half a century is finally to be abolished. But this is not the end, rather a new beginning.
In fact, prior to the decision to abolish RTL, RTL facilities everywhere had already been undergoing quiet changes. How exactly have RTL facilities changed or transformed? Where will the targets of RTL and the RTL guards go? Once RTL has been abolished, how will the community corrections system develop? It has been one year since this paper published a major series of reports entitled “RTL: Retention or Reform” on November 21–22, 2012. Xiaoxiang Morning News reporters have been carrying out new interviews and analysis in an attempt to think about the work that will be needed in the “post-RTL era.”
Of the past eight years, Jiang Jiawen spent nearly five in an RTL facility.
If it had not been for the abolition of RTL, Jiang’s time in the RTL facility would have been set to end on November 7, 2013. In fact, he was “released” early on September 18.
At the National Conference on Politico-Legal Work held on January 7 of this year, news emerged that “the RTL system would cease [operations] this year.” Nevertheless, Jiang Jiawen was still sent to RTL in March.
As a petitioner, Jiang has been detained in an RTL facility six times over the past eight years and sentenced to RTL five times. This rare experience has led him to be known among petitioners as the “RTL champion.”
Jiang’s story confirms a kind of dissimilation of the RTL system: as an instrument of stability maintenance, it has continually been abused.
And, now, in its specific operational form, the RTL system is about to die a natural death.
Sent to RTL Five Times, Six Times in the RTL Facility
On March 15, 2013, police took Jiang Jiawen from Shijingshan District, Beijing, back to his hometown of Dandong. The next day, he was sent to the Dandong RTL facility.
The RTL decision found the “facts of unlawful [behavior]” as follows: Between October 22 and 27, 2012, JJW incited petitioners diverted to the Dandong Processing Center for Letters and Visits to go to Beijing to petition and create disturbances, disrupting the normal work order. It was decided to send him to RTL for one year, from November 8, 2012, to November 7, 2013.
How, then, was it that Jiang Jiawen came to be in Beijing during his RTL sentence? “I was sent to the RTL center on November 8, 2012,” he recalled, explaining how he was sentenced five times to RTL but sent to RTL six times. “Then, 20 days later, I was released for carrying out a hunger strike in protest. There was never any paperwork when I was sent in and out of RTL, so they actually combined these two times to make a year of RTL.”
On January 7 of this year, Jiang was in a small room in the Beijing suburbs when he heard news from the National Politico-Legal Work Conference that “the RTL system would cease [operations] this year.”
He was therefore indignant when he was again sent to the RTL facility. “RTL has been abolished,” he thought, “so why am I being sent to RTL?” Moreover, his health was not good, as he suffered from high blood pressure and heart disease.
On March 17, Jiang learned that State Council Premier Li Keqiang, while answering reporters’ questions at a press conference during the meeting of the 12th National People’s Congress (NPC). stated that the relevant departments were intensively studying how to enact a reform plan for RTL and that plans hopefully would be unveiled by year-end.
This led Jiangto realize that RTL was about to become history. As he counted the days, although he was uncertain when he would be released, one thing was for certain: this would be the last time he would be sent to RTL.
Fight Becomes a Turning Point in Life
Jiang Jiawen is 58 years old this year and is a resident of Yuanbao District, Dandong, Liaoning. One verbal argument was the turning point in his life.
According to Jiang’s account, at 9:30 a.m. on November 3, 2001, a man was repairing a farming tricycle under the streetlight ten meters in front of his house. He went over to have a look, and several men from the car repair shop inexplicably began to hurl insults at him. The two sides began to argue verbally, and this led to a fight. Someone grabbed a brick from Jiang’s hand and struck him with it in the face, breaking his cheekbone and leaving it dented and dislocated, fracturing his maxillary sinus and membrane, and resulting in internal bleeding in his left eye and abrasions on the left side of his face.
Jiang spent 55 days in the Dandong Public Security Hospital. His injuries resulted in paralysis on the left side of his face, frequent headaches, and difficulty swallowing.
Unsatisfied with the public security organ’s handling of the case, Jiang began to petition. Later on, police arrested two of the assailants, both surnamed Yu. In August 2005, a court sentenced each of the two men to prison terms for intentional assault.
But Jiang maintains that the true attacker escaped justice. He has always alleged that the owner of the repair shop, Zhang X, was the one who attacked him with the brick. “It’s as if ‘X’ hit me with the brick, but it was ‘Y’ and ‘Z’ who were arrested and convicted.”
In August 2005, public security organs across the country launched a major campaign to centralize the process for receiving petitions and addressing issues raised by petitioners. Jiang Jiawen went to the Liaoning Public Security Department, but it still left him dissatisfied: “The public security organ upheld the original review opinion because: one, there was insufficient evidence to pursue criminal responsibility against Zhang and two, the Jiudao Police Station did not err in enforcing the law, and this case should be considered closed.”
Jiang was unable to provide this reporter with the case files from the assault case, and the truth [of his account] is difficult to confirm. But what is certain is that it was his dissatisfaction with the results that led him to begin petitioning in Beijing and caused his fate to become entwined with RTL.
At that time, RTL had already begun to be criticized from all sides. In March of that year, at the Third Session of the 10th NPC, a Law on Correction for Illegal Acts, which intended to replace RTL, was included in the legislative plan of the NPC Standing Committee.
Jiang’s final RTL decision referred to all five of his sentences: one year of RTL each in 2005, 2007, 2008, 2011, and 2012.
Cycle of “Petitioning, Stability Maintenance, RTL”
Originating in the 1950s, RTL was originally designed as a measure for compulsory education and reform, as well as a way of placing [individuals] into employment. After several decades of evolution, the scope of RTL expanded dramatically. Peking University law professor Jiang Ming’an calls it “+X,” explaining, “RTL became a big basket, into which anything could be placed.”
“In fact, RTL has been dissimilated into a tool of stability preservation,” says lawyer Chi Susheng, a former NPC delegate. Criticizing RTL, she notes that some officials treat RTL like a “magic weapon” against petitioners and use it with a high degree of frequency and effectiveness to cover up social conflict and block the voices of common people. When they encounter long-term petitioners, they get the RTL committees located inside the Public Security Bureau to affix their chop and immediately send them to the RTL facility.
Shortly after being released from RTL in March 2008, Jiang Jiawen again went to Beijing. During that year’s “two meetings,” NPC delegate and Shaanxi People’s Congress Standing Committee member Ma Kening formally made a recommendation calling for the abolition of RTL. Ma Kening held that the State Council’s administrative regulations concerning RTL ought to be abolished for violating provisions of the constitution and the Legislation Law, as well as the Administrative Penalties Law and the Public Order Management Penalty Law.
However, Jiang faced another term of RTL. On the eve of the 2008 Olympics, when police took him to the hall of a Beijing hotel, he used a razor blade to slit his wrists. After being taken into custody back to Dandong, he was found to have disrupted the normal order of the hotel and sentenced to RTL.
“From that point on, I basically stopped petitioning. I have no home and am just staying in Beijing.” Jiang says that each RTL has been because of petitioning; he has become a stability-maintenance headache for the local government.
RTL, Beijing, RTL—over these years, it’s as if Jiang were shuttling back and forth between these two stations. He is almost fixated on continuing to live in Beijing and seeking what he considers to be justice.
His rented room is in the Beijing suburbs, far from the bustling city center. It’s nearly a one-hour bus ride past the terminus of one of the city’s metro lines. Not even 10 square meters, he pays a monthly rent of 200 yuan for the room. Adding other costs, his monthly expenses total nearly 1500 yuan. For a laid-off worker such as Jiang, this is a serious economic burden.
However, this is an unstable life. He has moved more than a dozen times. “Each time, the landlord has come under pressure from the police,” he says. “They raise the rent so we can no longer pay and have no choice but to move elsewhere, further and further from the city center.”
After several stints in RTL, Jiang says that he no longer goes to the relevant departments seeking justice like he used to four years ago. He has just grown accustomed to staying in Beijing. After divorcing in 2003, he lives alone and no longer has a home. Support from his family is limited. When his son married at 32, he was in RTL and was unable to attend the banquet.
Changes in the RTL Facility: Labor Time Shrinks
As a veteran petitioner, Jiang has become accustomed to paying attention to high-level trends and policy directions. He was able to watch television and read newspapers at the RTL facility. His focus on external events, particularly policy trends, made him especially sensitive to the smallest changes in the RTL facility.
Having been sent to the RTL facility so many times, he came to know nearly everyone who worked there. “Some really sympathized with me,” he said, “but I warned them not to lose their jobs by having too much contact with me.” On the outside, Jiang never telephoned any of the guards inside the RTL facility. “I didn’t want to get them involved.”
At the RTL facility, labor was the primary means of “reform.” Jiang still remembers the two slogans posted on the wall of the RTL facility: “Fertile Soil for Ideological Reform and Correction” and “Harbor for Rehabilitation and Education.” In fact, when he was first sent to RTL in 2005, he was sent out to dig ditches and lay foundations. By 2008, he began to do manual labor indoors: “making watches, [plastic] flowers and the like—whatever work was at hand.”
This year, after it was announced that RTL would cease operations within the year, the RTL facility he was at underwent a series of changes. One noticeable change was that the time spent on production shrank. “When there was no work, they had us study—legal knowledge, moral education, and so on,” he recalled. “Of course, labor still came first.”
“I heard they set up a legal education class and even put up a new building,” he said. “Young officers at the RTL facility were being trained for transfer to the legal education class.” Jiang thinks that the methods of control and education in the RTL facility are much better than they were before. This past year, no one was sent to solitary confinement or beaten for failing to complete a work assignment.
When he was released early, Jiang learned that the RTL faciliy was to become a drug treatment center. “In the past, those sent for RTL and those sent for compulsory drug treatment were all mixed together; later, the two were separated.”
In the Third Plenum decision, abolishing RTL was an important aspect of the clearly proposed plan to improve the system of human rights and legal protections. In the view of experts, elimination of an old system that restricted individual liberty without legal process or judicial decision is in itself a huge contribution to the protection of human rights.
Jiang has previously written essays criticizing RTL and posted them online. “Evil law” and “human rights” are words that appear frequently in these pieces, and the influence [of these articles] was significant.
Some of the officers in the RTL facility were angry when they saw [the essays] and rebuked him, saying: “How can you write things like that?” But other officers expressed their agreement with his articles.
2013: Last Days inside RTL
“There’s an unwritten rule at the RTL facility,” says Jiang. “New arrivals are first sent to the strict-control unit and held separately there under strict control for three months before being transferred to other brigades.” Jiang explained that he was an exception: since he did not obey the guards and was a “frequent visitor” at the RTL facility, he stayed in the strict-control unit the entire time.
This year, he noticed something strange. After his arrival, nobody new was being added to the strict-control unit. “This meant that the RTL committee wasn’t deciding any new RTL cases,” he concluded. This is consistent with reports emerging from locations across the country of public security organs stating that this year they would no longer approve any new RTL cases, signalling that RTL was no longer being used.
The RTL facility where Jiang Jiawen was held is medium-sized. Over the past few years, he estimates that it housed at most several hundred men. In March of this year, there were approximately 90 or so at the RTL facility. At the end of June, the RTL facility began releasing people, many before their scheduled time. In early June, 16 men were transferred from an RTL facility in Dalian, including six who were sent to the strict-control unit. Less than a month later, those six had been released early. Over the next three months, others were gradually released from RTL.
On September 18, the day before the Mid-Autumn Festival, the Dandong RTL facility gave Jiang and the other men there each a mooncake. The guards bought fruit, chicken, fish, and beverages. There were only six men remaining at the RTL facility: “The four remaining in the Fourth Brigade were combined with the strict-control unit. At that time, I was the only one left in strict control, and there was another guy in the Second Brigade.”
But the inmates refused to accept the treats provided by the RTL facility and threw the mooncakes on the floor. Jiang said that he refused to eat as a protest against RTL.
It all happened very suddenly, but it was all within reason. At 2 p.m. on the 18th, the head of the brigade told Jiang and the other inmates to gather their belongings and go to the management office to complete paperwork because they were all being released. Jiang did not sign the paperwork; in his mind, he never accepted that he should have been sent to RTL in the first place.
Jiang did not take any items, such as quilts or sweaters. Carrying only a few items of seasonal clothing, he left the RTL facility. Behind him was an iron gate, four meters high.