In January the Chinese Communist Party announced that its sprawling network of concentration camps—known as “re-education through forced labor”—would be abolished. Or halted. Or reformed. Like many major, politically sensitive policy changes in China, the details are still unclear, and this has left officials inside the system scrambling to respond, and observers of it puzzling out the implications.
The system of forced labor, called laojiao in Chinese, has been a workhorse of the communists’ repressive apparatus since 1957, and currently holds from hundreds of thousands to millions of prisoners. The estimates are best guesses by human rights researchers because the regime does not publish statistics. Chinese people can be sent to up to four years of forced labor, without access to a lawyer or any judicial proceedings, for something as minor as ridiculing a Party official online, or for the spiritual beliefs that they hold.
Given the centrality of the system to the Communist Party’s stated goal of “maintaining stability,” the idea that it’s going to be abolished has led to the obvious lines of speculation: Will it be a case of, as one Chinese dissident put it, “different broth, same medicine?” Will they instead use the Party-run judicial system to punish enemies of the state? Or is this really a sign of reform?
“Their control, monitoring, intimidation, and persecution will be the same.” — Zhong Weiguang, columnist
The responses from inside the Party indicate uncertainty about all of the above.
According to interviews conducted by The Epoch Times, officials in Chongqing, a major city in the southwest, are in a state of panic as they try to figure out how the new guidelines will impact them personally.
Members of the vast security apparatus in that city have particular reason to be concerned, given that thousands of people are believed to have been wrongly sentenced to forced labor under the watch of Bo Xilai, the now-deposed Politburo member. A large part of his “smashing the black campaign” was based on the idea of labeling political enemies and others as “mafia elements,” seizing their assets, and packing them off to the southwestern equivalent of Siberia. When those men are released, they may seek retaliation against those that put them away.
Phasing It Out
In Guandgong Province, long a vanguard of enterprise and experiment, the response has been more measured. The Party Committee there announced that it would stop using its forced labor system within the year. Labor camps will not receive new detainees, and those currently locked up will serve out their terms.
In Yunnan, a province further from the center and with a strong local identity, officials announced that they would stop sentencing people to forced labor for three kinds of offenses: “endangering state security, disruptive petitioning, and smearing the images of state leaders.” Those currently detained will still serve out their sentences, and after that, the camps will presumably close.
Renee Xia, the international director of Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a rights group based in Hong Kong, said in a press release that it was too early to be optimistic about the shifts. “There may very well be [intra]-Party disagreement and conflicts over the fate of RTL at the top, which cast a shadow on Yunnan or Guangdong’s plans to move ahead with changes,” she said.
“The most important thing is the resistance from citizens, that is the most basic power for social change in China.” — Huang Qi, Chinese dissident
Yet another category of response by Chinese officials was anticipated by the more pessimistic dissidents and political commentators: that cadres would simply switch to other instruments of persecution. That has already started to take place against practitioners of Falun Gong, according to an early report on Minghui.org, which carries first hand accounts of persecution from China. Falun Gong is a spiritual practice that has been persecuted since 1999, after then-Party leader Jiang Zemin became fearful of the popularity of its traditional moral teachings.
According to the Minghui article, heavy prison sentences have been handed down in some regions—the author counts 75 cases during one week of January alone. In this scenario the Party has simply switched to using the judiciary to attack its declared enemies, a process that carries little more protection than the arbitrary system of forced labor.
These developments are not surprising to Zhong Weiguang, a columnist and researcher of totalitarian regimes based in Germany. “The form and name of re-education through labor might be removed, because it doesn’t look good. They can temporarily not use it. But their goals, their control, monitoring, intimidation, and persecution of the people under the dictatorial rule of the Party will be the same.”
Without broader political reforms in the Party’s rule, he cannot take the announcements seriously, he said. In the meantime, he sees the exercise as simply one of propaganda.
Zhong has lived outside China for several decades now, though he keeps a close eye on developments. Dissidents and civil rights lawyers inside the country take the general point on board: that the Party will of course continue to repress people. But they have a sober and long-term view of what will be really required for change in China over the long term.
The Fruit of Effort
Huang Qi, who founded one of the first human rights websites in China, Liusi Tianwang, or June 4 Heavenly Net, indicated that there is more behind the policy than a mere public show.
“At the current stage, after over a decade of collective protest, it can be said that the laojiao system has already reached its end point. It’s in the face of protests and discontent that they take measures to abolish it,” he said.
International pressure has played a small role. “The thing that really has a decisive impact are the millions of citizens, including our Falun Gong friends, and their years of resistance,” Huang Qi said.
The fact that the regime has been forced to respond to social pressure “is of course a sign of social progress,” Huang Qi says. He sees it as one part in a long campaign of resistance—that, while the system may be replaced by something else, they will also resist the new incarnation. The key is that the shift is a signal that popular pressure changed the official course.
“The most important thing is the resistance from citizens, that is the most basic power for social change in China,” Huang Qi said.
A Sight of Progress
Zhang Jiankang, a civil rights lawyer in Shaanxi Province, took a similarly long-term view to the development. “In the early years,” he said, “‘counterrevolutionary crimes’ became ‘subversion of state power’. They just updated the name, though the content is the same. However, getting rid of the name ‘counterrevolutionary crimes,’ on the surface, is still progress.” It shows that the Party has had to budge in the face of popular resistance.
The natural consideration for observers is whether the announcements will have unintended consequences, opening the door to other kinds of reform that will eventually lead to greater freedoms or even democracy in China.
“China moving toward the rule of law is a trend that no group can stop,” says Huang Qi. He said it requires China’s people—including journalists, lawyers, scholars, petitioners—to “keep resisting.”
“Under that continuous supervision and resistance, I believe that the Chinese mainland will walk toward democracy and human rights. … Only by pushing hard can we get a China that is moving toward human rights.”
Editor’s Note: When Chongqing’s former top cop, Wang Lijun, fled for his life to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu on Feb. 6, he set in motion a political storm that has not subsided. The battle behind the scenes turns on what stance officials take toward the persecution of Falun Gong. The faction with bloody hands—the officials former CCP head Jiang Zemin promoted in order to carry out the persecution—is seeking to avoid accountability for their crimes and to continue the campaign. Other officials are refusing to participate in the persecution any longer. Events present a clear choice to the officials and citizens of China, as well as people around the world: either support or oppose the persecution of Falun Gong. History will record the choice each person makes.