Journalist Ian Johnson interviewed civil-right lawyer Teng Biao on the current political situation, just ahead of the annual plenum of the Communist Party for the New York Review of Books. A fragment about the Re-education Through Labor Camps.
Late last year, the government said it had abolished laojiao [Re-education Through Labor, a practice according to which police had wide-ranging powers to detain people and send them to labor camps without trial]. Have they definitively repudiated this kind of detention or is it just cosmetic?
It can be considered progress, but in China there are many other methods of extrajudicial detention, such as shourong jiaoyu [detention for education] and shourong jiaoyang [work-study detention for juveniles], as well as black jails to detain petitioners, and shuanggui [extrajudicial detention for officials under investigation of wrongdoing].
So why did they abolish Re-Education Through Labor if they have so many other methods to detain people without trial?
Because this one is the most infamous. They faced pressure from civil society, such as in the Tang Hui case [in which a woman was sent to a labor camp in 2012 for trying to find the men who had raped her daughter] and also from the international community. Many people abroad know of laojiao but they don’t know the other methods.
Still, I think it is progress. It was so easy for police to put people in Re-education Through Labor. Since it was abolished they more often use the provisions for criminal detention under the criminal procedures law. According to that, the police can detain a person for thirty days without any involvement of the prosecutor or the court. But after thirty days they are supposed to apply for a formal arrest. If the arrest is authorized then the case enters the criminal procedure. If not, then they are released. So it’s more complicated to use these other methods.
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