Chinese Government Hints Again at Reform of the "Re-Education Through Labor" System

March 14, 2005

China’s often criticized "re-education through labor" (RETL) system is to be reformed and incorporated into a new law entitled the "PRC Law on the Correction of Unlawful Acts," according to a March 2 report in the Beijing News. The article reports that the draft law has been incorporated into the NPC legislative plan for 2005, and the NPC Standing Committee has scheduled a first reading of the draft for April of this year. (For a summary of China’s 2005 legislative plan, click here). The report also notes that more than 10 percent of the NPC delegates signed proposals in 2004 calling for reform of the RETL system.

According to Ministry of Justice official Wang Gongyi, under the current system, public security makes RETL decisions without supervision or restriction, and the maximum RETL sentence is three years with a possible one-year extension. Wang reports that the current draft of the new law significantly changes the RETL system by:

(1) setting a maximum sentence of 18 months;
(2) permitting RETL defendants to hire a lawyer, request a hearing, and appeal sentences handed down by public security to the people’s courts; and
(3) making detention centers more open and humane.

The new system would also be codified in the form of a national law. A State Council regulation established China’s current RETL system, a technical violation of article 8 of the PRC Law on Legislation.

China’s RETL system is a form of administrative detention that has long been a focus of international criticism. Last month, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued a report that severely criticized China’s administrative detention system, noting that "none of the recommendations that the Working Group formulated in its earlier report have been followed" (see related story here). When the Chinese government has faced external pressure in the past, similar articles on RETL reform have appeared in the Chinese press (see, e.g., Southern Metropolitan Daily, March 8, 2004). Thus, while reports of legislative progress on RETL reform are welcome, they should be interpreted with caution. The timing of the reports, along with the Foreign Ministry spokesman’s efforts to publicize them, suggest that they may be more of an effort to influence international opinion than a sign of genuine reform.

For more information on the RETL system, see the criminal justice section of the CECC Annual Report.