China Improves Human Rights, Really

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”
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When Chinese President Xi Jinping unveiled a raft of powerful-sounding but vague reforms last November, attention focused immediately on two of them -- relaxing China's one-child policy and closing down its labor re-education camps, or laojiao. In theory, both moves promised to expand liberty for ordinary Chinese. Many commentators, however, assumed that in practice the reforms -- like so many others in the past -- would be watered down, undercut by local officialdom and generally forgotten after the initial flurry of excitement.

Their pessimism may not have been warranted.

On Dec. 28, via a vote of senior Chinese lawmakers, the one-child policy was modestly loosened and -- more significantly -- laojiao was formally abolished. Indeed, the laojiao system had already begun to wither almost immediately after Xi's announcement, as tens of thousands of prisoners from hundreds of often horrific camps were quickly paroled. By now, just weeks later, many camps have been shut down or are being converted into regular jails.

This could actually be that rarest of things: a positive Chinese human-rights story. Most importantly, it's an optimistic sign that Xi Jinping's government is interested in and -- crucially -- capable of instigating real reform that benefits the lives of ordinary citizens.

Laojiao was officially established in 1957 as an efficient means to punish those who committed minor offenses, including "politically unreliable individuals," in the words of the state-owned China Daily newspaper. It eventually evolved into a tool to be used against -- among others -- religious activists, petty criminals and anyone who happened to annoy overzealous local officials.

Victims could be incarcerated for as long as four years, subjected to forced labor, political indoctrination and -- according to accounts from released prisoners -- outright torture. The scale of the program was huge: According to Chinese government data, as recently as 2008 160,000 prisoners were being held in 350 camps. As of New Year's Day, Beijing's camps held 5,098 prisoners, according to Chinese state news media.

Over the years, so many citizens imprisoned without trial made for many, many stories of injustice -- several of which became high-profile rallying points for efforts to abolish the program, both by online activists and columnists at major state-owned news outlets. In August 2012, for example, Tang Hui, the mother of an 11-year-old girl who'd been raped and forced into prostitution, was condemned to 18 months of laojiao for protesting the light sentences given to the men who committed the crimes. The news quickly became a national sensation, and led to renewed, loud calls for the abolition of laojiao.

Chinese lawmakers first took up a law reforming laojiao in 2005. But nothing came of it that year, or in 2007, when it was given further consideration. Political obstacles loomed large, from the significant sums of money local governments earned from laojiao camps, to the unwillingness of small-time officials to give up a form of largely unaccountable power. Then there was the question of what to do with the tens of thousands of prisoners already incarcerated.

So in early 2013, when top officials indicated that the system would be abolished before the end of the year, skepticism reigned. Yet, as early as mid-November, soon after Xi's pledge, several cities including Shanghai claimed to have emptied their laojiao facilities, with most prisoners set free and an unaccounted number sent -- according to Chinese news media -- to drug rehabilitation facilities.

Such transfers are a troubling development: Reuters reports that at least some former laojiao prisoners are being held over in rehab facilities for as long as two years. Similarly, on Jan. 9, the Telegraph's Malcolm Moore wrote that he'd visited six large laojiao camps outside of Beijing, and found that four had been shut down, one was being converted into a cell block for a nearby prison -- and the sixth was being repurposed into a drug rehabilitation facility. Laojiao reform that simply replaces the old system with a different kind of incarceration falls short of its declared purpose.

Nonetheless, speculation on what the future may bring shouldn't overshadow the fact that a hated and unjust system of retribution that's terrified generations of Chinese is, for the most part, no more. Much more needs to be done to create a fair criminal justice system in China: Black jails and other extra-judicial means of detention are still common, and it's reasonable to assume that they'll be exploited by the churlish local potentates who formerly embraced laojiao.

But the fact that Xi has been bold enough to take this step is unquestionably welcome encouragement to those fighting to establish the rule of law in China. Chinese citizens can only hope there's more to come.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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Adam Minter at