Rule of Law Is Key to Ending All Forms of Extralegal Detention, Including Forced Labor - CHRD Responds to News of Suspension of RTL in Yunnan Province

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(Chinese Human Rights Defenders – February 6, 2013) – With a news report today that two Chinese provinces are taking bold steps to end the Re-education through Labor (RTL) system within their jurisdictions, CHRD strongly urges the Chinese government to follow suit at the national level, steer clear from replacing RTL with other kinds of extralegal detention, and to free all wrongful detainees from forced labor camps.

The Southern Metropolitan Daily has reported that Yunnan Province is immediately phasing out the use of RTL in what an official has declared an “historical step” in RTL reform. The paper quotes Meng Sutie (孟苏铁), a member of the CCP Standing Committee in Yunnan and head of the Yunnan Politics and Law Committee, as saying that, from now on, provincial authorities will stop approving orders to send to RTL those who are suspected of three types of behavior—endangering state security, disruptive petitioning, and smearing the images of state leaders—and also suspend granting all other RTL cases involving violations of the law, which will instead be “handled according to relevant laws.” Meng also reportedly stated that all RTL detainees will serve out the remainder of their terms and that no one will be sent RTL this year in Yunnan.

The published story also cites Yan Zhican (严植婵), director of the Politics and Law Department in Guangdong Province, as saying on January 28 that Guangdong will end the use of RTL as soon as the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress approves an “RTL reform plan.” What this means, Yan said, is that RTL camps in the province will no longer receive new detainees, and those already serving RTL will remain there until their terms are over. Most RTL facilities in Guangdong will be then used for forced drug treatment and rehabilitation, functions that RTL has served to some extent during the system’s lengthy history.

These developments, if they can be independently verified, indicate very significant moves in Yunnan and Guangdong towards ending RTL, the longstanding extrajudicial detention system in place since the 1950s, where police have the power to lock up Chinese citizens without a trial or access to a lawyer for up to four years. Such a development would appear to be more substantive than a quickly censored comment by a high-ranking official about central government plans to suspend RTL in 2013. In an online news story in early January, Meng Jianzhu (孟建柱), head of the CCP Politics and Law Committee, reportedly stated that the CCP was considering “halting the use” of RTL, after such a decision was approved by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. The remark, which appeared on weibo on January 7, was immediately sponged off, while the CCTV evening news and a Xinhua report on the National Conference on Political and Legal Work, where Meng spoke, made no mention of it.  Yet, the remark quickly spread online and can still be read here.

“It’s too early to celebrate,” said Renee Xia, CHRD’s international director. “Since a central government official’s comments were censored, there may very well be inter-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. A more solid assurance requires a concrete timetable for RTL’s demise and no plans for keeping extralegal detention active but under a new label.”

Official chatter about RTL “reform” is nothing new. Authorities have been widely speculated to be mulling over changes to RTL for years, even indicating that RTL could be phased out and replaced with “illegal behavior correction” centers. In practice, such a “reform” would mean that extralegal detention would simply continue under a different name.

Meaningful RTL reform must go beyond ending its use or abolishing it while replacing it with another extralegal detention system. CHRD draws attention to the fact that the “Custody Station” (收容站) has replaced the outlawed “Custody and Repatriation” (收容审查所), which had been used by police to detain migrants, the homeless, petitioners, and dissidents. The abolition of Custody and Repatriation by the State Council in 2003 followed a national outcry over the beating to death of a migrant, Sun Zhigang (孙志刚), inside a Custody and Repatriation center in Guangdong. Since then, black jails have mushroomed in number, and RTL camps have been put to extensive use to perform the same function of arbitrary detention by police without a trial or access to a lawyer.

Over the past two decades, members of China’s intellectual establishment and its civil society have called for the abolition of RTL, a form of administrative detention managed by committees of the public security bureau, where detainees are locked up without a trial or little chance to appeal for up to four years and forced to perform hard labor. According to data provided by the Chinese government, approximately 170,000 individuals were being held in 320 RTL camps at the time of a review of China’s human rights record by the UN Human Rights Council in 2009, although the number given by officials of RTL detainees was reportedly just over 60,000 in 2012. Public furor in China over RTL reached a fever pitch in the summer of 2012, sparked by the plight of a woman, Tang Hui, who was sent to an RTL facility in August after petitioning about the abduction and rape of her young daughter. Once Yang’s experience was posted online, public outrage soon led to her release. Both media coverage and public sentiment have increasingly exposed other stories of citizens being thrown into RTL, often after criticizing local officials while exercising their constitutionally-protected rights to free expression.

Possibly in response to widespread protests against the extralegal detention system, the Chinese government announced in October that RTL “reform” was being piloted in four cities. But rather than introducing substantive judicial or legislative reforms, the main “reform” disappointingly has appeared to be cosmetic—renaming RTL as “Illegal Behavior Correction.” Even more dismaying, reports in the Chinese media suggest that another system of detention may be put in place that preserves the basic aspects of RTL, but with minimal changes.

“There would be real cause for celebration if the tens of thousands of RTL detainees all across the country are set free, rather than relocated into other detention facilities without access to justice,” said Renee Xia. “After all, there can be no meaningful end to arbitrary detention in a police state that does not respect the rule of law.


Media contacts

Renee Xia, International Director, +1 240 374 8937,

Victor Clemens, Researcher, +852 8192 7875,

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