“Pu Zhiqiang has been hospitalized for three days to stabilize his blood sugar, but the prominent Chinese human rights lawyer is not slowing down. From his hospital bed, he is fighting for the abolition of laojiao – a Gulag-style ‘re-education through labor’ system that could become the first major reform of China’s new leaders,” the FT’s Kathrin Hille reports:
Recent signs suggest that Mr Pu and other critics of the decades-old system may emerge victorious. Last month, the Communist party said it would “push reform” of the labor camp system this year. And evidence is also mounting that authorities have significantly reduced the use of the camps in recent months.
Among the many calls facing Xi Jinping, China’s new Communist party chief, for political reform, none is louder than the demand for changes to the laojiao system.
“The name of re-education through labor stinks, and it signals that China is a police state,” says Mr Pu (below, right, with dissident artist Ai Weiwei). “What we need is to rebuild the rule of law.”
The Communist authorities recently announced plans to reform the Re-education Through Labor (RTL) system, China Digital Times reports.
“Since last May, Mr Pu has helped secure the release of 21 inmates from camps in Chongqing,” Hille notes:
A typical case was that of Tian Hongyuan. In 2010, Mr Tian suggested to property owners in an online forum that they bring a dispute with the developer of their compound to the attention of Xi Jinping, then vice-president.
The police responded by interrogating and beating Mr Tian, and sending him to a labor camp. His case was widely followed on the Chinese internet, as his background as a white-collar worker and property owner, and the unpolitical nature of his comments, helped many members of China’s middle class to identify with him.
The strength of Xi’s commitment to reform will be gauged by his response to growing demands for constitutional government, say two leading observers.
The recent controversy featuring Southern Weekly, one of China’s leading liberal publications, was ostensibly about censorship and freedom for journalists, but at “a deeper level…it was about alternative national dreams,” say Xiao Qiang and Perry Link.
Xi’s version of the China dream, outlined in his leadership acceptance speech at the 18th Party Congress, “had two levels: a daily-life material level and spiritual aspirations at the level of state and nation,” they write in the Washington Post:
Editors at Southern Weekly, a publication based in Guangdong, saw a crucial gap, right at the dream’s center: It left out dignity for citizens. So they drafted an editorial, “China’s Dream: The Dream of Constitutionalism,” that said in part:
Constitutional government is the basis for the entire beautiful dream. Only when we have established constitutional government, only when the powers of government have been limited and separated, will citizens be able to voice their criticisms of authority with confidence and be able to live in freedom, in accordance with their inner convictions. Only then will we have a free country and a country that is truly strong ….. . The real ‘China dream’ is a dream for freedom and constitutional government.
“This is the part of the editors’ statement that Communist Party authorities could not abide,” Xiao and Link note: The language does not go quite as far as Charter 08, the citizen manifesto largely responsible for Liu Xiaobo’s 11-year prison sentence. Charter 08 had called for elections and a multiparty system. But the echo is unmistakable. Some lines are almost identical, such as “after the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, our forebears set up the first republic in Asia, yet a constitutional China — free, democratic, and strong — was not the result.”
The Communist authorities’ harsh response to Southern Weekly’s editorial exposed the weakness of the ruling party’s position, they contend:
China’s rulers are well aware that something is missing in their version of the dream. Charter 08 and the original Southern Weekly statement both put “individual dignity” at the dream’s center. If it were true, as the regime often maintains, that such ideas are “Western” and stirred up only by “external hostile forces,” then there would be no reason to censor them or to jail their proponents. Authorities could simply publish the ideas and then watch the Chinese people inoculate themselves by rejecting them as “un-Chinese.” But no one is clearer than China’s rulers that this would not be the case.
The new leadership’s ability to eliminate China’s gulags will be a telling indicator of reform prospects, say analysts.
“There is consensus at the top to abolish the system,” says Wang Gongyi, a former senior justice department official and China’s most prominent labor camp expert. “The pressure has grown too big, and the police are the only ones that want to keep the camps.”
“Demands to reform the judicial system have grown in recent years particularly after Hu Jintao, Mr Xi’s predecessor, granted greater powers to the domestic security apparatus in an attempt to contain unrest in an increasingly complex society,” writes Hille:
This was highlighted in 2009 with the draconian 11-year jail sentence handed to Liu Xiaobo (above), the dissident who the following year won the Nobel Peace Prize, and by the almost three-month detention without charge of Ai Weiwei, China’s most prominent contemporary artist……..Abolishing laojiao would be a remarkable assertion of Mr Xi’s powers over the bloated security machine. But any effort could be helped by the fact that the top official for security issues no longer sits on the Politburo Standing Committee, a change that occurred when Mr Xi was appointed the new party boss in November.
Former inmates interviewed by the Financial Times say petitioners – people who complain to higher administrative levels about grievances the local government fails to address – formed the biggest group imprisoned in their camps. Between a quarter and half of the inmates were followers of Falun Gong, the outlawed sect, they added.
“These numbers raise doubts about how far Beijing’s reform can go, given that they will still want to find a way to deal with such people,” Hille notes.
“There is no other option,” says Mr Pu. “We still have all the same problems we had 10 years ago. Hu Jintao’s ‘harmonious society’ is in a dead end.”
Xiao Qiang is founder and chief editor of China Digital Times, a bilingual news Web site, and an adjunct professor at the University of California. Perry Link, a co-editor of “The Tiananmen Papers,” teaches Chinese literature at the University of California, Riverside. China Digital Times is a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.