This article was originally published in the South China Morning Post on January 9, 2013 under the title, “End of forced labor hailed, but some fear it may return in another form.”
Legal experts and rights groups welcomed reports this week about ending re-education through labour, but are concerned that another unjust punishment system will take its place as long as stability remains the Communist Party’s overarching priority.
In particular, legal scholars noted security tsar Meng Jianzhu’s choice of the word “halt” – instead of abolish – when describing Beijing’s plans for the half-century-old laojiao system, which allows the police to send people to forced labour camps for up to four years without trial.
Some feared the system might stay on the books or continue in an altered form.
Professor Fu Hualing, of the University of Hong Kong cautioned against being overly optimistic because, to the government, maintaining social stability “is still the priority that will override legal reform”.
The laojiao system has evolved from a system to purge “counter-revolutionaries” and “class enemies” in the 1950s to a convenient way to punish today’s petty criminals, cult members and government critics.
A 2009 UN Human Rights Council report estimated that 190,000 inmates were locked up in 320 re-education-through-labour centres across the country.
Ira Belkin, executive director the US-Asia Law Institute at New York University School of Law, said he expected that the laojiao system, if abolished, would be replaced by a new, shorter form of detention with more robust procedural protections.
Belkin noted that there was no indication that the extra-legal detentions used by the authorities, such as “black jails”, house arrest and forced disappearances would end any time soon.
“Abolishing re-education through labour, although extremely significant, would not by itself mean the government is completely giving up on maintaining stability,” he said.
Nicholas Bequelin, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, also believed it was likely the government would replace re-education through labour with another kind of police-controlled administrative detention, albeit with some modest procedural protections. That form of ” laojiao lite” might prove even harder to abolish than the current system, he added.
“China needs to abolish all forms of administrative detention,” Bequelin said. “It should not simply replace one bad system with another system that is only less bad.
“Any system that permits imprisonment without a proper trial not only opens the way to systemic abuses, but also defeats the purpose of establishing a better criminal law system.”
Professor Eva Pils, an expert on mainland legal issues at Chinese University, said abuses would continue as long as authorities continued to believe that petitioners, activists and other people blamed for causing instability needed to be locked up.
“I remain sceptical what [the authorities] are going to do to the petitioners,” she said. “Are they going to let them protest, are they going to handle their complaints? If they don’t call it laojiao, they will find some other way of dealing with them.”