Monday, March 3, 2014

To End Arbitrary Detention, Bring Officials to Justice

Entrance to the reprimand center at the Luoyang City Police Station in Henan's provincial capital. Photo credit:

The formal elimination of reeducation through labor (RTL) in the final days of 2013 was greeted with widespread approval among Chinese citizens. Following a series of high-profile cases involving controversial detentions of petitioners and critics of local officials, the public had grown skeptical of this decades-old system of administrative detention and intolerant of the stability-first mentality of the officials who made use of it.

Given that little has been said so far about what, if any, measures might be put forward to replace RTL, there is an understandable concern among many that local authorities will come up with their own solutions and proliferate practices that are even more problematic—when it comes to due legal process and protection of individual rights—than RTL.

This vigilance about preventing the emergence of new forms of arbitrary detention was behind the outrage that erupted recently after the Beijing News reported on a system of “reprimand centers” that had been set up in Henan Province to deal with petitioners perceived to be disruptive and troublesome. Individuals were reportedly held in these facilities for days or even months at the behest of local officials without any legal process. The practice began in 2008, when provincial authorities instructed the use of “education and reprimand” to deal with people who went to Beijing to petition.

Henan government officials responded swiftly to the exposure of the reprimand centers, ordering that they be shut down. But many are concerned that the matter will end there, without further investigation or assignment of responsibility for those involved in this system of extrajudicial detention. To this end, a group of 31 rights lawyers from around China recently submitted a request for “open government information” regarding the reprimand centers, though there has so far been no response.

In an opinion piece published in the Shenzhen Daily Sunshine, reporter and columnist Liu Xiandong explains that local authorities are liable to continue violating the rights of citizens unless there are more serious consequences for doing so. Reminding readers that abuse of power is another form of corruption, he writes that “rights and dignity are even more precious than taxpayer money or public funds”—suggesting that the high-profile anti-corruption campaign now underway should not ignore the more routine, non-economic abuses of power.

How Could Eliminating Reprimand Centers for Abnormal Petitioning Be Enough?

Liu Xiandong, Daily Sunshine
18 February 2014

Faced with public condemnation over the establishment of reprimand centers for abnormal petitioning throughout Henan, the Henan Politico-Legal Committee and Office of Letters and Visits replied that the use of reprimand centers was not in accord with laws and regulations and sent out an overnight notice announcing the immediate launch of a province-wide inspection and elimination campaign to abolish all reprimand centers for abnormal petitioning. Given that reprimand centers were set up, there must have been violations of the law or even crimes committed. Accountability and punishment ought to be placed on the agenda. Last Saturday, a Daily Sunshine editorial called on officials in Hunan to hold executive agencies accountable for unlawful acts in this affair, but the relevant departments have so far said nothing.

First, let’s discuss how the unauthorized establishment of “reprimand centers for abnormal petitioning” is unlawful. Even though the petitioning system is, in the view of Yu Jianrong and other scholars, a mechanism for rights remedy that acts as a supplement where rule of law is insufficient, in reality the existence of this system gives a shred of hope to people who have already lost hope in the ability of ordinary legal channels to uphold their rights as citizens. In particular, crossing administrative jurisdictions to petition has the potential to strike fear in the hearts of domineering local power-holders. For this reason, some insist on declaring the practice of reporting on problems to higher officials on the outside to be “abnormal petitioning” and try to use brute force to prevent it. Everyone knows the methods used in the past, such as setting up the interception mechanisms known as “black jails” or sending petitioners to psychiatric hospitals. The biggest “innovation” of “reprimand centers for abnormal petitioning” is their attempt to legalize and regularize the dedicated black jails and psychiatric hospitals for petitioners that were denounced in the past.

There is no denying that some petitioners fabricate facts, slander, and disrupt public order in the course of their petitioning. Existing laws and regulations may be used to respond to these sorts of acts. It’s only that when ordinary legal channels are used to regulate petitioners, it is possible that some things that the authorities would rather keep secret might get revealed once the matter goes before a court. This is something that some local governments cannot stand. So, they are compelled to employ methods that “do not accord with law and regulations”—in other words, to use illegal measures to deal with petitioners.

The internal operations of the reprimand centers for abnormal petitioning have not yet been revealed, so we aren’t clear about whether it involved intolerable mistreatment or humiliation. But locking up citizens without due process and depriving them of their fundamental liberty in order to reprimand them is already a gross abuse of power and a violation of rights. When expanding power gets out of control, it inevitably becomes a malignant force that not only violates the lawful rights of citizens but also seriously damages the foundations of a rule of law society.

If the matter of setting up reprimand centers for abnormal petitioning were resolved merely by abolishing them, it would mean leaving open the question of whether unlawful acts by those with power can be effectively reckoned with. If there is nearly zero cost for violating the law, can the public expect that they won’t do something even worse next time? Can they be expected to lead everyone in the construction of a rule of law society? Can one have the extravagant hope that their rule will be fair and just?

These days there is a consensus among officials and the public about the need to fight corruption, but our understanding of corruption cannot be limited to economic acts like embezzlement or accepting bribes. We also need to pay attention to corrupt exercise of power. Power is not the same as money, but when power exceeds the boundaries set by law, it becomes a kind of rights violation and a form of corruption. What is ultimately damaged is the rights and dignity of the public. These rights and dignity are even more precious than taxpayer money or public funds and must be protected from violation and plunder.

It is based on these reasons that construction of a rule of law society must attach importance to restricting public power and must remedy and punish each unlawful act by the authorities.