01/29/2013 04:22 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2013

An End to China's Forced Labor Camps?

In the fall of last year, Tang Hui, the mother of an 11-year -old young girl who had been kidnapped, raped, and sold into prostitution by seven men, was sentenced to 18 months in China's reeducation through labor (RETL) system. Her only crime was her outspoken advocacy for death sentences for the seven men. While the fact that two of the men had already received death sentences and the others lengthy jail terms reveals something important about the general harshness of China's criminal justice system, Tang Hui's plight caught national attention and sparked widespread support for reform of the RETL system. Apparently in response to this building popular sentiment, and just maybe a sign of a more generally liberal administration, Meng Jianzhu, the new secretary of the Central Politics and Law Commission, recently made a statement implying that reeducation through labor would be phased out by the end of the 2013.

The reeducation through labor system, known in Chinese as laojiao (劳教), is part of China's system of forced labor camps, sometimes known more generally as laogai (劳改). Laojiao is particularly problematic because it allows China's police to sentence an individual to three years (with a possible fourth year extension) without a trial or judicial confirmation.

Experts on China's forced labor camps, including founder of the Laogai Research Foundation, Harry Wu, understandably doubt the Chinese Communist Party's commitment to reforming RETL. And parts of the Chinese media almost immediately played down Meng's claim. Even if reeducation through labor is abolished, the Chinese state seems likely to continue to employ mechanisms, formal or informal, to detain without trial those individuals that it finds most troubling. However, political prisoners make up only a small portion of those in the system, and there seems to be a recent trend in which prominent dissidents have found themselves under house arrest rather than in RETL's forced labor camps. The vast majority of the millions of Chinese that have been incarcerated through RETL are suspected (though generally not convicted) petty criminals, drug addicts, and the like. If these reforms result in any real change, therefore, there are two distinct issues. First, would phasing out RETL really mean an end to the Chinese Communist Party's ability or willingness to oppress dissidents? Almost certainly not, though it could undoubtedly be an important step in that direction. More likely, phasing out RETL might mean that the petty criminals and other non-political prisoners in the system would be steered towards China's criminal courts. While these are far from perfect, providing at least the semblance of a formal judicial process before sentencing people to years in labor camps would still mark a tremendous advance for rule of law and human rights in China. Both skeptics and optimists, therefore, should hope that there is some substance behind Meng's announcement.

Considering the timeliness and magnitude of this issue, we at the University of Louisville's Center for Asian Democracy are ecstatic to be hosting a talk by Harry Wu, the founder of the Laogai Research Foundation. While a geologist by training, Wu's ability and willingness to relate his own personal experiences from 19 years in the China's forced labor camps have made him the central figure in the movement to abolish the system.