As several recent posts have pointed out, the formal abolition of reeducation through labor (RTL) at the end of last year has prompted new scrutiny of other arbitrary forms of detention routinely used in China. Getting the most attention in recent months is the system known as “custody and education,” used to punish both prostitutes and their clients with up to two years of detention without any formal judicial process.
A recent article from the Guangzhou newspaper Southern Metropolis Daily showed how critics of custody and education have successfully used requests for “open government information” to get details about the measure and its use in China. This summer, Beijing lawyer Zhao Yunheng received a reply to his request to the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) for information about custody and education. The reply included an acknowledgment that there are currently 116 custody and education facilities nationwide.
Though Zhao did not get all of the detailed information he requested, the MPS response does reveal a number of interesting things. First, it is clear that, with only 116 facilities nationwide, there are many parts of China where custody and education is not being enforced at all. Thus, in addition to the arbitrary nature of the procedures used to send individuals to custody and education, there is also a serious problem of geographical inconsistency of enforcement—meaning that individuals accused of the same illegal behavior might receive very different degrees of punishment, for example up to 15 days of administrative detention in places where there are no custody and education facilities but a minimum of six months in custody and education in places where there are.
Second, there are some puzzling discrepancies between the data reported on the national level and information collected locally. The MPS report of 116 custody and education centers contrasts with an earlier figure of 90 facilities derived by Southern Metropolis Daily through open government information requests and reporting at the provincial level. Because the MPS did not provide details, such as the names of each facility or their relative distribution throughout the country, it is difficult to know how to reconcile the two different figures.
Even though he did not get all of the information he requested, Zhao Yunheng expresses general satisfaction with the way the MPS handled his response and remains optimistic that custody and education will undergo substantial reform in the near future. The fact that the issue continues to receive periodic coverage in the national media suggests that changes to the system may indeed be on the reform agenda. Continued pressure from the media and civil society—including demands that the government reveal more details about the various ways it locks up its citizens—will undoubtedly help to further this process along.
MPS Replies to Open Government Information Request,
Now 116 Custody and Education Centers Nationwide
Wang Xing, Southern Metropolis Daily
August 1, 2014
In a recent reply to an open government information request, the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) for the first time made public the number of custody and education facilities nationwide—116. The MPS also stated that China has not yet abolished custody and education and that public security units continue to enforce this measure.
“I never imagined that the MPS Open Government Information Office would take such a conscientious attitude,” said lawyer Zhao Yunheng, who applied to have the information made public. “They acted fully in accordance with procedures, and even telephoned me to explain when they needed to extend the time limit.”
Custody and Education Still Being Enforced
In its July 22 reply entitled “MPS Open Government Information Response,” the MPS Open Government Information Office responded separately to each of Zhao Yunheng’s three questions.
On the question of which provinces, municipalities, and autonomous regions were still enforcing custody and education and which had effectively abolished or ceased enforcing the measure, the MPS reply stated: In 1991, the National People’s Congress (NPC) Standing Committee passed its Decision Concerning the Strict Prohibition of Prostitution and Visiting Prostitutes.” Article 4(2) of that decision states: “Public security organs, in cooperation with other relevant agencies, may subject those who engage in prostitution or visit prostitutes to between six months and two years of compulsory legal and moral education and productive labor so that they may change their bad habits. Detailed measures are to be enacted by the State Council.” In 1993, the State Council promulgated and put into effect the Measures for the Custody and Education of Prostitutes and Clients of Prostitutes. These measures specify that prostitutes and those who visit prostitutes are subject to custody and education and provide detailed provisions concerning the decision-making body, term of custody, testing and treatment for sexually transmitted disease, inmate education and management, and procedures for release and remedy. The reply added: “Currently, the state has not abolished custody and education and public security authorities continue to enforce the measure. We have no information about abolition of custody and education by local authorities.”
According to an investigation by Southern Metropolis Daily (see the previous report in Weekly In-Depth Report, July 2 [Translator’s note: This report is no longer available on their website, but is available here.]), of the 31 provincial-level areas nationwide (excluding Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan), 26 have at least one custody and education center. Anhui, Jiangxi, Ningxia, Qinghai, and Tibet do not currently have custody and education centers. Of these, Ningxia, Qinghai, Tibet, and Jiangxi have never had custody and education centers, so abolition is not an issue there. Anhui once had 17 custody and education centers, but around 2005 they were ordered to close because the “conditions for custody no longer existed.” Even though there is no longer custody and education there, no one has ever said anything about formally “abolishing the custody and education system.”
No Mention of Specific Designations or Distribution
With respect to the number of custody and education centers nationwide, as well as their designations and locations, the MPS reply states: Article 4 of the Measures for the Custody and Education of Prostitutes and Clients of Prostitutes stipulates that: “Based on the need for custody and education work, public security organs at the level of the province, autonomous region, municipality or autonomous prefecture, or city district shall submit plans for the establishment of custody and education centers to the people’s government at the same level for approval.” According to figures from the MPS Detention Facility Administration Bureau, there are 116 custody and education centers nationwide.
There are more than 330 cities or autonomous prefectures at the prefectural level in China. With 116 custody and education centers, that means that there is one center for every two prefectural cities on average.
Between April and May of this year, public security departments in 19 provinces nationwide responded to requests for open government information, revealing a total of 55 custody and education centers. Southern Metropolis Daily reporters then visited the 12 other provincial-level public security departments, all of which apart from Guizhou provided figures on the number of local custody and education centers. Calculating from the 19 provincial replies to requests for open government information and the information provided during visits to 11 other provinces (excepting Guizhou), one gets a total of 90 custody and education centers.
According to Zhao Yunheng’s analysis, perhaps the custody and education centers in some areas have already stopped operating in practice, but because they have not been formally abolished, this leads to the discrepancy in the data.
The MPS reply did not provide the specific designations or distribution of the 116 custody and education centers. Based on previous investigations, the centers are distributed extremely unevenly. In some provinces, nearly every city has one, while in others the centers have been set up in only a few cities. Yesterday, Zhao Yunheng submitted another open government information request for additional information.
Applicant: MPS Attitude Conscientious
Zhao Yunheng, the person who made this application for open government information, is the director of the criminal defense division at the Dacheng Law Firm. In early June, he, Duan Wanjin, and other criminal defense lawyers at the Dacheng Law Firm met to discuss the problem of custody and education, out of which came the request for open government information. “A few days later, I got a call from the MPS Open Government Information Office,” said Zhao. “They said our request wasn’t formatted correctly and suggested that I go to the MPS website to download the correct form and reapply.” By default, the applicant on the standard open government information request form is a citizen or legal entity, so when Zhao Yunheng resubmitted the application it was in his capacity as an individual citizen.
Zhao’s application requested information about the implementation of custody and education in each province; the names, numbers, and distribution of custody and education centers nationwide; and the number of people being held in custody and education. Zhao Yunheng believes that many delegates to the NPC and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, legal experts, lawyers, and others have already made a great effort and carried out a valuable investigation into the issue of custody and education. He and his colleagues wanted to approach the problem from the angle of open government information in hopes that they could provide a better basis for debate if they received more information.
According to the regulations on open government information, the department receiving the request should furnish a reply within 15 working days. As the deadline was about to approach, Zhao Yunheng received a call from the MPS Open Government Information Office. “They said this information concerned a large number of bureaus and that they themselves did not have the information,” Zhao recalled. “They said they would have to coordinate with these agencies to collect statistics, so they hoped to extend the 15-day deadline. This was fully in keeping with the regulations, and I felt this was perfectly ordinary.” On July 23, a registered letter was delivered to the Dacheng Law Firm. It was dated July 22—a reply delivered within the statutory deadline.
Zhao Yunheng said that in his many telephone interactions with them, the MPS Open Government Information Office took a very conscientious attitude, and he was personally satisfied with their attitude and the response they provided: “I believe the MPS took a positive attitude. I am relatively optimistic that custody and education will be reformed in the near future.”