Yueran Zhang senior contributor

Can One Woman’s Case Change a 70-Year Old System of Injustice?

Tang Hui, mother of rape victim, after her hard labor sentence was repealed

The story of Tang Hui, a mother sentenced to hard labor through the “re-education through labor,” or RTL, program when seeking justice for her raped daughter, may have created new impetus for legislative change.

Among the voices urging Tang’s release (Tang was finally released on August 10), some stepped even further to question the whole RTL system. As writer Cui Jinsheng (@雾满拦江) argues: “Reeducation through Labor is the most typical extra-judicial punishment. No court, no attorneys, and the police can strip citizens of their freedom at will. Have a look at Tang Hui’s case: the daughter was raped, and the police sent the mother to hard labor. Why does such injustice exist? Because of the ‘reeducation through labor’ system. The terrible system put all people, including police officers, at great peril. Is there any reason for such an unjust, inhumane system to continue?” {{1}}[[1]]劳教是最典型不过的私刑,没有法庭,没有律师,尽由警方遂心由意,就剥夺公民的自由。如唐慧案,幼女被轮暴,警方却将受害人母亲劳教,为什么会如此不公?就是因为劳教制度的存在。这个可怕的制度让所有的人,包括警察,都陷入朝不保夕的危险之中,如此不公正不人道的制度,还有理由存在吗?[[1]]

The discussion gained momentum after Zhou Kehua, a suspect responsible for 9 robberies and 10 deaths, was shot by police on August 14. It is reported that 15 years ago, Zhou was sentenced to one-year hard labor because of illegal ownership of guns. Many suspected that the inhumane experience of hard labor accelerated his fall into the criminal world and provoked his desire to take revenge on society. “The hard labor experience changed his view of society,” @沙秋红 writes, “prisons and hard labor camps in China are not the place where criminals reform themselves. Instead, they are another hell.” {{2}}[[2]]周克华进行劳教让他改变了对社会的看法,中国的监狱和劳教并不是让人改过自新的地方,而是另外一个地狱。[[2]]

The RTL system traces its origin back to 1950s. Officially speaking, it is an administrative measure, rather than a form of judicial punishment, applied to the people who have committed misdemeanors in order to “ensure social security, prevent and reduce crimes”. The program combines restriction of freedom, forced labor and ideological brainwash and is run by a bureau affiliated to the justice department. The program gives government the right to deprive one’s freedom for years without trial.

Due to the lack of transparency and due process, limited avenues of appeal, and poor oversight, the program has an infamous history of abuse and being used to persecute people who challenged the authority.  

Text on banner: "Chen Qiufang was sentenced to 18 months of labor for illegal petitioning"

Petitioners like Tang Hui and outspoken netizens are often targeted. In April 2011, a Chongqing netizen with the handle @方竹笋518 was sentenced to one-year hard labor after tweeting about the Li Zhuang case. Five months later, a Chongqing RTL committee sent a young cadre, Ren Jianyu, to hard labor because he published and shared politically sensitive tweets. It seems that RTL has become one of the favorite weapons for local governments to clamp down on China’s social media.

Despite the release of Tang Hui, many worry that the notorious program would make China less likely to become a country ruled by law. @莫道周公’s comment is representative. “Under intense pressure from media, lawyers and citizens, the government repealed the hard labor decision [of Tang], which is a success. However, people cannot help but ask: when ordinary people can lose freedom or even life at the whim of one official, where is the rule of law and the rule of virtue? What’s the difference from the old China ruled by an emperor centuries ago?” {{3}}[[3]]湖南永州唐慧一案在媒体、律师、社会民众强烈关注下,终于取得了当地政府被迫作出撤销劳教的阶段性“胜利”,在当前法治社会下,某个领导的一支笔一句话就可以让一个老百姓失去人身自由甚至掉脑袋的时候,人们不禁要问:所谓的德治、法治从何谈起,这与已消亡多年的封建社会土皇帝相比岂不是殊途同归?[[3]]

Actually, netizens’ voice of doubt and criticism speaks nothing new. In 2004, seven members of CPPCC in Guangdong province submitted a proposal to abolish the program within the province. In 2007, 69 scholars and legal professionals, including economist Mao Yushi (@茅于轼) and attorney Li Fangping (@李方平律师), signed an open letter calling for an end to the program. Until that year, 420 motions on the same topic had been submitted to the National People’s Congress.

Yet, all of the attempts failed. The National People’s Congress planned twice, in 2005 and 2010, to pass a new law, Legal Violation Correction Act (违法行为教育矫治法), to replace the current program. The law did not get passed because of opposition from the police department and the justice department.

But this time, the situation is a little bit different. After the burst of online opposition during the recent two weeks, positive response from the government and state-run media brought sign of change which had never been seen before. The Justice Bureau of Beijing (@北京司法) tweets on Sina Weibo: “The spirit of law, public opinion and rational voices are the most powerful guarantee of Tang’s freedom. Only the rule of law could be the fundamental solution.” {{4}}[[4]]法治的精神、民意的体恤、理性的声音,才是护送唐慧回家更有力的保证。只有法治,才能根治。[[4]]

The Guangdong Branch of Xinhua News Agency (@新华广东快讯) calls for systemic progress: “Could Tang Hui be the second Sun Zhigang? In 2003, the loss of life of a university graduate resulted in reflection on and correction of the repatriation system. Today, progress could happen if we reflect on the RTL system and correct it. Reflections shouldn’t always come at the cost of a life.” {{5}}[[5]]唐慧能否成为第二个孙志刚?2003年,以一个心怀梦想的大学毕业生的生命为代价,换来了对收容遣送制度的反思,且很快做出了纠正。今天,若能以一个妈妈上访6年反被劳教的代价换来对劳教制度的反思,且很快做出纠正,那就是进步。我们不能总是付出生命的代价才做出反省。[[5]]

Sun Zhigang's grieving family

In March 17, 2003, university student Sun Zhigang was mistaken as a vagrant because he did not have a residence permit and was put under custody to be repatriated to his hometown. Three days later, he was found dead after being tortured. The case led a public outcry against the system of detention and repatriation of those without residential permits. Five months later, the system was abolished. Sun Zhigang case was regarded as one of the most prominent examples of an individual case leading to institutional change in China. In Tang’s case, as in Sun’s, those aching for reform are using specific cases to push for changes in a whole system.

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Yueran Zhang

Yueran Zhang is a student at Duke University, class of 2015, currently majoring in sociology and math. He spent all of his life before college in Beijing.
  • LYT

    Completely legitimate argument against RTL. It must also be mentioned that America’s prison system produces the same pattern of recidivism amongst former inmates. That being said, China has an interest in reforming the prison system and coming up with a form of criminal justice system that’s fair and appropriate for her society. We’ll see how it will go.

  • http://www.facebook.com/alfredo.cabezadevaca.5 Alfredo Cabeza de Vaca

    I guess rape is only a crime in China, if done by foreigners

  • http://www.facebook.com/alfredo.cabezadevaca.5 Alfredo Cabeza de Vaca