China is taking a fresh look at
abolishing the long-disputed re-education-through-labor system, or laojiao, by
proposing a new law which is more lenient and protective of the legal rights of
Minor offenders attend a legal
knowledge lecture in a reeducation-through-labor institute for women in
Hefei, Anhui Province in this September 21, 2006 photo. China is to reform
the decades-old reeducation-through-labor system.
the annual legislative plan released on Tuesday by the Standing Committee of the
National People's Congress (NPC), the top legislature, the proposed law on
correction of illegal acts is among the 20 draft laws or amendments to be
discussed this year.
Listed in NPC's annual legislative plan since 2005, the draft law was put
aside for two years because of disagreements, and the standing committee said
there are still "lots of disagreements" this year.
Law experts have described the law as "a concrete step to protect human
rights as endowed by the Constitution".
Laojiao, an administrative measure adopted in 1957, empowers the police to
sentence a person guilty of such minor offenses as petty theft and prostitution,
to a maximum of four years' incarceration.
Under the practice, a judicial review by a court can
only take place after punishment is imposed.
Ying Songnian, a law expert and NPC deputy, said that flaws with laojiao lie
in its implementation procedure because there is no strict legal boundary in
deciding the length of detention.
Wang Gongyi, vice-director of the Institute of Justice Research affiliated to
the Ministry of Justice, said that the current laojiao practice contradicts
several items in the Constitution, the Criminal Procedure Law, and the
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights a United Nations human
rights treaty China signed in 1998.
Re-education-through-labor, or laojiao, is an administrative
punishment imposed by the police.
The practice was adopted by the Standing
Committee of the National People's Congress in 1957.
Initially a relatively mild suppression of
counter-revolutionary activities, laojiao served as a useful way to punish
dissent in 1958.
It was nearly phased out during the cultural
revolution (1966-76), but expanded quickly as the country launched
anti-crime campaigns beginning in 1983, and considered a good way to
rehabilitate minor offenders.
It now serves multiple functions, including
crime control, drug rehabilitation, and investigative detention.
They all require that decisions to detain someone go through judicial system
According to Wang, a drafter of the law, the debate still centers on whether
it takes an administrative procedure or a judicial one to detain minor
The Ministry of Public Security proposes to maintain the current practice,
with a judicial review coming after the administrative enforcement.
But the Supreme People's Court favors the judicial procedure, which requires
all detentions to be imposed only after a court's decision.
Some experts, including Wang, take the middle road. They propose to grant a
defense right to all minor offenders before incarceration. Those who demand a
review should not be incarcerated before a court's decision.
Despite the arguments, Wang said the new law is more correction-oriented and
According to it, the current "re-education centers" will be renamed as
"correctional centers", with all bars and gates removed and made more
The incarceration period will also be shortened to less than 18 months,
depending on the offense.
Figures from the justice ministry show that about 400,000 people have served
their terms in 310 laojiao institutions.
Wang emphasized that the practice has contributed to the country's penal
system for decades as it eases the burden imposed on the prison