Labor Pains

Article excerpt

Byline: Rosemary Righter

Will China ever reform its prison camps?

on jan. 7, Meng Jianzhu, the recently appointed head of the Communist Party's Central Politics and Law Commission, made a historic announcement. He informed a legal conference that Mao Zedong's loathed "reeducation through labor" system, known as laojiao, would be scrapped as soon as the National People's Congress stamps the reform this March.

Mao thought up laojiao back in 1957--as a way to get rid of his enemies. Police can pick up people and send them without formal charge, legal representation, or trial for up to four years of detention with hard labor. The system serves as a method for "disappearing" into grim labor camps any inconvenient Chinese citizens, prostitutes, petitioners against injustice, members of sects such as Falun Gong, and--in a notorious recent case--a mother demanding heavier sentences for the gang who raped her 11-year-old daughter and sold her into prostitution (the woman was later released). More than 150,000 Chinese suffer in this extralegal hell. No single reform would be more effective for a better China than its abolition.

Yet within hours, Meng's statement, unmistakable in the official transcript of the meeting, had been "rephrased" in the official media: on the agenda was reform, not termination. Reform could merely lay a veneer of legality over the previously extralegal system. Already, a controversial new law, Article 73, specifically authorizes secret detention of people suspected of crimes related to state security, terrorism, or serious corruption. In what is believed to be the first Article 73 arrest, only hours after Meng spoke, police hauled off a man for daring to question the suspicious death of an activist.

Xi Jinping, China's smiling new boss, has made his first big mistake. Admittedly he is in a bind. Far from being the "harmonious society" proclaimed by his predecessor, Hu Jintao, China is seething with malcontents, manifested in some 200,000 "mass incidents" a year. Xi is under huge public pressure, not just from the urban young but from very senior party intellectuals, to do more than just talk about reform. But there is equally strong resistance, among party hardliners and also among "realists," who argue that reforms that genuinely subject the party to the rule of law would end up destroying it--because, almost by definition, the party is a law unto itself. …