How Educational Is Re-Education?

What you learn, or don’t learn, at a Chinese labor camp.

Wang Xiuying and Wu Dianyuan have been ordered to spend one year in a labor camp

Two women in their late 70s were sentenced to “re-education-through-labor” by the Beijing police after they applied repeatedly for a permit to hold a protest. How much education actually happens at these re-education camps?

Not much. The emphasis in re-education-through-labor is on the labor: People sentenced to so-called laojiao may spend as much as 12 to 14 hours a day, according to some accounts, doing work like construction, making bricks, or mining. (U.S. Customs investigations have also implicated Chinese prison labor in the production of binder clips and diesel engines.) That work serves as both a means of punishment and as a major source of revenue for a camp.

Since the re-education-through-labor camps were created in the late 1950s, they have—at least in theory—been oriented toward “rehabilitating” inmates both politically and morally. Over time, however, the emphasis on political study sessions appears to have declined. Some laojiao camps do have rules requiring inmates to study two hours a day, although one in-depth report on a camp in southern China found that sessions occurred only when there was a lull in production. (When the province tested whether the education was working, inmates were fed examination questions in advance.)

Re-education-through-labor provides local authorities with a way to detain citizens without filing criminal charges. (China’s larger “reform-through-labor” system houses criminals who have actually faced a trial.) As a result, it has been used as an easy means to imprison political dissidents, Falun Gong followers, and petitioners who have been accused of disturbing the social order. But a large percentage of those in re-education-through-labor camps—most estimates put the total inmate population in the hundreds of thousands—are accused of more mundane vices like prostitution or drug addiction. Inmates can be sentenced to up to three years, although they can be kept for a fourth year for failing to admit their guilt or violating camp rules. Sentences can be appealed, but they are reviewed by the same Public Security Bureaus that handed them down.

Several proposals have been discussed in recent years to modify the re-education-through-labor system, which has received criticism from legal experts both inside and outside China. Aside from abolishing it altogether, reformers (PDF) have advocated allowing inmates weekend visits home and making it easier for them to get legal representation. (There has also been talk of changing the name of the system to something along the lines of “correctional centers,” which might be less evocative of the system’s origins under Mao.) Another possible modification might actually be to increase the amount of education at the camps, with more training given to inmates in preparation for work after their release.

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Explainer thanks Sharon Hom of Human Rights in China and Fu Hualing of the University of Hong Kong.