Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Guangzhou Police Chief Stands Up for Government Critics, RTL Demise

Ever since the Chinese Communist Party’s top body in charge of law-enforcement matters signalled that “further reform” of China’s reeducation-through-labor (RTL) system would be carried out this year, there has been a great deal of talk and speculation about what, exactly, might be in store. It seems increasingly likely that steps will be taken this year to bring an end to the current RTL system, although it remains unclear what, if anything, might be put in its place—making celebrations of RTL’s imminent “demise” (feichu) potentially premature.

Yan Zhichan. Photo credit: Guangdong Department of Justice

Yan Zhichan, who heads Guangdong’s Department of Justice (and thus oversees the province’s prisons and RTL facilities) was quoted in the January 29 edition of Southern Daily, a newspaper published by the Guangdong Province Party Committee, saying that the province had “completed all preparatory work” and was waiting for the National People’s Congress Standing Committee to review and approve a plan for reforming RTL. One of the first steps in such a plan is expected to be a “cessation” (tingzhi) in the use of RTL, which Yan explained would entail halting new intakes and releasing those currently in the system at the ends of their terms.

A major part of the “preparatory work” has apparently involved a change in accounting that follows the June 2008 enactment of China’s Anti-Drug Law. The law caused Guangdong to put up new signs at its RTL centers signalling their joint functions as “compulsory drug treatment” facilities. Although compulsory drug treatment continues to occur in existing RTL centers (and those receiving treatment were previously included in officially reported RTL tallies), data is now being disaggregated. According to Southern Daily, nearly 80 percent (14,000) of the more than 18,000 people in RTL in Guangdong are in compulsory drug treatment, while the remaining RTL detainees are mostly there for gambling, soliciting and patronizing sex work, and other public order violations. Nationwide, according to Wang Gongyi, a researcher at the Ministry of Justice, there are more than 60,000 individuals in RTL, and more than 200,000 in compulsory drug treatment. This compares with an aggregated 160,000 RTL detainees, as reported by the Ministry of Justice, in 2008.

Xie xiaodan. Photo credit: Guangzhou Public Security Bureau

Perhaps on a more positive note, Guangzhou Police Chief and Deputy Mayor Xie Xiaodan recently told reporters covering the city’s annual people’s congress meeting that he “fully supports getting rid of [i.e., feichu] RTL,” although he also said that more study needed to be carried out to determine how to deal with minor offenders previously targeted for such administrative detention. Xie was very clear, however, in opposing the use of RTL on “persistent or disruptive petitioners,” and said that RTL should not be used casually to punish critics of the party or the government.

Xie’s comments were welcomed in a January 25 editorial (translated below) in Southern Metropolis Daily, another paper published under the auspices of the Guangdong Party Committee. The editorial focuses its attention on the importance of government tolerance for criticism and critics as a “positive force” for promoting progress. Getting rid of RTL will eliminate a tool that has been used to repress critics in the past, but it does not necessarily mean that the mentality of intolerance for criticism among many in positions of power will go away. To ensure that criticism gets to play its positive role in China, what’s needed are channels to facilitate the expression of diverse and contentious views along with effective measures to restrain the exercise of state power. In this regard, the editors signal their hope that new party leader Xi Jinping—who recently said “power should be restricted by the cage of regulations”—can put his words into action.

Criticism Is a Positive Force for Promoting the Progress of the Nation and Society

Southern Metropolis Daily
January 25, 2013

From time to time, there are bright spots at the Guangzhou People’s Congress.

After discussing the topic of making official’s assets public, Guangzhou Deputy Mayor and Police Chief Xie Xiaodan spoke in an interview with reporters about petitioning that involves litigation and legal disputes and the question of RTL, saying that it was inappropriate to use RTL against persistent and disruptive petitioners, that people who express criticism of the party and the government should not be casually sent to RTL, and that he fully supports getting rid of RTL.

After a series of awful cases, one could say that a kind of consensus on the evils of RTL formed long ago. [With his statement that he] “fully supports getting rid of RTL,” Xie Xiaodan merely makes clear that such a consensus exists. Worth paying more attention to is the fact that, as someone responsible for a vital part of the RTL system, he actually rejects the “instrumental value” upon which RTL has depended.

Xie Xiaodan’s comments reveal the way that RTL has targeted two types of people: first, persistent and disruptive petitioners and second, those who express criticism of the party and the government. Why is RTL “inappropriate” for the first group? Xie Xiaodan said that “we must first address the origins [of the problem] in the legal system and resolve the current problem of petitioning but having a lack of trust in the courts.” It’s easy to see that most of the time petitioners’ preference for petitioning over the courts is the result of the failure of the legal system to work properly. If [disputes] are not, as Xie Xiaodan puts it, “returned to legal channels,” RTL will have no way of containing this so-called persistent and disruptive petitioning. Why should the second group not be “casually sent to RTL”? Although Xie Xiaodan did not elaborate, his emphasis on “human rights principles” shows that he views citizens’ expression of criticism as a kind of fundamental human right.

True, different individuals and groups have different views about criticism. For an ordinary member of society, tolerance for criticism is an expression of magnanimity. But for government, the value of criticism is not nearly so simple: it can help the nation and society to fully “face up to its fears” in the course of moving forward and continuously undergo correction and adjustment in order to correspond to the greatest happiness for the greatest number. In this regard, Jefferson, one of America’s founding fathers, famously said: “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism” [sic, for related discussion, see here]. It is in this respect we maintain that it is sufficient for an individual to show magnanimous tolerance in the face of criticism, but for a government this is not enough. Government should also make institutional arrangements to include criticism and critics and employ criticism as a positive force for promoting the progress of the nation and society.

We believe that there will be more and more people like Xie Xiaodan who don’t approve of “casually sending to RTL” those “people who express criticism of the party and the government,” and believe that, once the Central Politico-Legal Commission issues its decision on furthering reform of the RTL system, an end to the evils of RTL will be just around the corner. But there’s less reason to be optimistic about making institutional arrangements for tolerating criticism and making criticism a positive force for promoting the progress of the nation and society. Every day, right in front of us, there are agencies of state power and civil servants that treat citizen criticism as an affront, and ignore, resist, or even suppress criticism. The public has reason to worry that, even if the weapon of RTL disappears, other kinds of hard or soft violence will become the nightmare of these patriots of “the highest form.”

In suppressing criticism, RTL is only a tool; unless you tame power, there is a danger of this tool being reborn or mutating. To tame power, it is necessary to make efforts to place it in a “cage of regulations.”

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.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

China Ushers in Non-Residential Residential Surveillance

Zhu Chengzhi (right) visits his friend, deceased democracy activist Li Wangyang. Photo credit: Deutsche Welle

Considerable public controversy erupted in China in late 2011 and early 2012 over proposed amendments to the Criminal Procedure Law (CPL) that would have allowed police to detain certain suspects without notifying the suspects’ family. One of the most troubling examples was the proposal concerning the measure known as “residential surveillance,” which—in spite of the name—was revised to include certain circumstances under which police could choose to carry out the coercive measure in a “designated residence” that was not the suspects’ home for up to six months. Critics argued that the ability to employ this measure without family notification would be tantamount to enforced disappearance and, therefore, a violation of international human rights law.

Public criticism over the “disappearance clauses” may have ultimately contributed to some salutary changes to the legislation, including the removal of exemptions for providing notification of residential surveillance (but not carrying out residential surveillance in a designated residence). Under the revised CPL, which took effect on January 1, 2013, police are thus required to give notice to relatives within 24 hours of all individuals being subjected to “non-residential residential surveillance.” This limits the ability of police to make an individual disappear without a trace, but the practice of non-residential residential surveillance remains deeply problematic, even though its inclusion in the CPL has given it a veneer of legitimacy.

This situation is illustrated by the case of Zhu Chengzhi, who, according to Zhu’s defense lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan, is likely to be the first person in China to be placed in this form of residential surveillance (the number of the notice issued by local police is “A01”) since the new CPL took effect earlier this month. Zhu, age 62, was detained in June 2012 by police in Shaoyang, Hunan, after he allegedly disseminated information that raised doubts about local authorities’ official finding of suicide in the death of his friend and long-time political prisoner Li Wangyang (李旺阳). After reportedly refusing to sign a guarantee that he would cease his efforts to draw attention to suspicions surrounding Li’s death, Zhu was placed under criminal detention on suspicion of “inciting subversion,” charges for which he was formally arrested on July 25, 2012.

After five months of incommunicado detention, Zhu’s case was transferred to prosecutors on December 25. On January 4 (the first day of business for Chinese government offices following the New Year’s Day holiday), Zhu’s wife, Zeng Qiulian, retained Liu Xiaoyuan to represent her husband. That same day, the Shaoyang People’s Procuratorate handed the case back to police for additional investigation, and police decided to place Zhu under residential surveillance and delivered an official notification (translated below) to his wife.

Even though Zhu Chengzhi has a legal residence in Shaoyang, police have chosen to carry out residential surveillance in a designated location under the provisions of Article 73 of the CPL, which allows for use of this measure “in cases involving crimes of endangering state security, terrorist activity, or especially serious bribery, if carrying out [residential surveillance] in the residence [of the criminal suspect or defendant] has the potential to interfere with the investigation.” The official notice of residential surveillance provided to Zhu’s wife does not identify the location where he is being held, meaning that his current whereabouts are unknown. The new CPL does not specify what information is to be included on notices of residential surveillance. Stipulations included in the August 2011 draft of CPL revisions said that the grounds and whereabouts of detention should be disclosed, but these clarifications were removed for residential surveillance and other coercive measures in the final law. Zeng told Reuters that police were moving her husband to a hotel but that they did not provide an exact location.

On January 5, Liu Xiaoyuan met with Shaoyang police and filed a request to meet with his client. Article 37 of the CPL gives lawyers the right to meet with clients who are under residential surveillance but also gives police discretion to deny lawyers’ requests when the client’s alleged offense falls under the category of “endangering state security,” which includes inciting subversion. Liu told Voice of America that he suspects Zhu was placed under non-residential residential surveillance precisely in order to prevent him from having access to a lawyer.

Under the new CPL, will this kind of long-term, incommunicado detention for people charged with state security crimes become more routine? It is still too early to say, but Zhu Chengzhi’s example is a very worrying sign.

Shaoyang Public Security Bureau
Notice of Residential Surveillance in a Designated Residence

SY PSB (     ) Res. Surv. Not. (2013) No. A01

Zeng Qiulian:

        In accordance with the provisions of Article 73 of the Criminal Procedure Law of the PRC, our bureau on January 4, 2013 at 11 a.m. carried out residential surveillance in a designated residence against Zhu Chengzhi (sex male, birthdate 1950.10.18, residence 1469 Baoqing East Road, Shuangqing District, Shaoyang, Hunan Province) on suspicion of the crime of inciting subversion of state power.

Shaoyang Public Security Bureau (chop)
January 4, 2013

This notice is given to the family member of the person under residential surveillance.