The New York Times

New York Times International

February 27, 2001

China Hones Old Tool: 'Re-educating' Unruly

BEIJING, Feb. 26 He had been detained for six months in 1989 for helping to organize a strike, and later he tried to sue the police on behalf of an exiled labor leader, so Zhou Guoqiang, a lawyer and longtime human rights advocate, knew he was on thin ice. Still, he was surprised in 1994 at the pretext they used to jail him.

Mr. Zhou and some friends were planning to distribute T-shirts bearing Communist slogans such as "Labor is Sacred" in a cheeky effort to assert workers' rights. But soon after the first samples were delivered to his home, the police picked up Mr. Zhou, and they held him in a Beijing detention center for nearly a year as they considered what charges to bring. "They couldn't find any way to pin a criminal prosecution on me," Mr. Zhou, 46, said in a recent interview in Beijing. "So I ended up being sent for labor re-education instead."

To silence this man who was seen as a troublemaker, the police used a procedure that is now central to the debate over human rights and the rule of law. On the vague rationale that Mr. Zhou was stirring up "social turmoil," they sent him without trial to a labor camp in the frigid northeast for a three-year stay. It was one of nearly 300 such camps that, according to official figures, now hold some 260,000 Chinese for offenses deemed too minor to warrant criminal prosecution.

While "re-education through labor" is mainly used to deal with petty criminals above all these days drug offenders and prostitutes it has also been frequently used to silence political dissidents like Mr. Zhou and religious renegades including, in the last year and a half, thousands of defiant believers in the Falun Gong spiritual movement.

In an unusually blunt challenge issued today in Beijing, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Mary Robinson, demanded that China abolish the labor re-education system altogether, calling it an "inherently arbitrary" form of detention that imposes forced labor as a punishment, in violation of internationally agreed standards. She made her appeal as the United States State Department issued its annual human rights report, saying that conditions in China have worsened dramatically.

Many Chinese legal experts have also argued that the system, which in practice allows the police to jail people for up to three years without trial or any other judicial review, is deeply flawed. They also say the system, which evolved through a series of inconsistent decisions, was never authorized in a comprehensive law by the national Parliament as required by recent legal reforms.

But an internal drive to eliminate or radically restructure the labor re- education system has fizzled in the face of strong opposition from the security and justice ministries, which have argued that its value as a tool for keeping order has been proved in the struggle against Falun Gong.

The power this system gives the police was certainly evident in Mr. Zhou's case: his advocacy of free labor unions, an official notice of his sentence said, was "intended to intensify social contradictions and stir up trouble." So Mr. Zhou, with no genuine chance to mount a defense or appeal, was taken by train to the Shuanghe Labor Re-education Camp, a prison farm near the Russian border, where the inmates were mainly young pickpockets, burglars and brawlers. In the camp, Mr. Zhou recalled, "both guards and prisoners used the word `education' sardonically: "It meant you'd been locked up in a small cell and struck with electric prods or beaten, and afterward you'd have to write a self-criticism saying that you'd been re-educated."

At this camp in Heilongjiang Province, which has a reputation as one of the toughest in the system, the inmates were subjected to another form of torture every day: during the long hours between breakfast and the second and final meal in the late afternoon, no one was allowed to use the toilet.

As Chinese legal practices are subjected to international scrutiny, the labor re-education system has emerged as one of the clearest violations of international standards, including the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that China has signed and says it will one day ratify.

The system began in the 1950's as a means of punishing "counterrevolutionaries" who committed no major criminal acts and slackers who refused to perform assigned work. Over the years, all kinds of petty crimes have been added to the list, giving the police enormous leeway. Normally, the decision to sentence people to labor camps is in the hands of city-level police authorities.

Resort to this system of "administrative" as opposed to "criminal" detention has actually increased over the last decade of general improvements of the legal code mainly reflecting the government's efforts to fight rising crime and drug abuse. According to a new report by Human Rights in China, official sources indicate that about 100,000 people were serving in labor camps at any time in the 1980's.

But as of December, Chinese officials have said, 260,000 people were being held in the system, 60 percent of them for offenses involving "disturbing public order" and 40 percent for offenses involving drugs.

The government has not revealed how many Falun Gong followers have been sent to labor camps without trial, but the group itself and human rights monitors estimate the number at 5,000 or more. Chinese newspapers have described hundreds of Falun Gong adherents being held at a single labor camp and claimed that many were "cured" there of their beliefs.

In the last several years, re-education through labor has become the subject of lively debate in Chinese legal journals, with some experts calling for its abolition and others, while asserting that it has legitimate uses, calling for some form of judicial oversight and other protections against capricious detention.

One of the most unfair aspects, many experts say, is the extremity of the sentences, which often surpass those given by criminal courts for seemingly worse offenses. Xu Yonghai, a physician who, after signing a human rights manifesto in 1995, was sentenced to two years in a labor camp but then inexplicably kept in a Beijing detention center for the entire term, recalls meeting a rural man in the center who had been sentenced to one and a half years in a labor camp for stealing a belt. "Just 1 belt!" Mr. Xu recalled in an interview. "He should have stolen 10 belts," Mr. Xu said, in which case he would have been criminally charged and given a shorter sentence.

At the Beijing meeting today, a workshop on "punishment of minor crimes" being held under a technical cooperation agreement between China and the United Nations Human Rights Commission, Ms. Robinson called for "a serious review leading to the abolition of the practice of re- education through labor." That China would agree to such a meeting at all is a sign of the wide unease with current practices here. Parliament is said to be near adopting partial reforms in labor re-education, possibly including judicial review of sentences and a shortening of the maximum terms.

But in the clenched-fist atmosphere surrounding the campaign against Falun Gong, Chinese experts no longer dare to call for abolishing the system and some have said they are even afraid to discuss the topic with a foreign reporter. Earlier this month, Wang Yunsheng, who directs the Justice Ministry's Bureau of Re-education Through Labor, said a new law on labor re-education may be issued soon, but stressed the continued need for such a system.

"For such a populous nation as China," he was quoted as saying in the official China Daily, "the re-education through labor system, which aims at stopping those on the verge of committing serious crimes, is an effective one for reducing crime."

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

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