China's Labor's Lost

The End of the Re-Education Through Labor Camps

Inmates listen to a speech, Shanxi province, September 1, 2010.
Inmates listen to a speech, Shanxi province, September 1, 2010. (Courtesy Reuters)

Advocates for the rule of law in China won a victory two weeks ago when the most Kafkaesque aspect of the country’s penal system was officially slated for abolition. The system of laodong jiaoyang, or laojiao for short, translates, innocuously enough, to “re-education through labor.” In practice, laojiao is a system of punishment for misfits -- from drug addicts to political critics -- whose rehabilitation is deemed to require years of forced labor without the benefit of a trial or even a chance to hear formal charges. It is a remnant of Maoist Communism that is entirely at odds with the country’s contemporary capitalist sheen.

When the Chinese Communist Party plenum, an annual conclave of top leaders, announced its intention to do away with the system, it was rightly considered a major test of new president Xi Jinping’s determination to reform the country’s political system. But it is far too soon to conclude whether he has passed the test. Xi’s decisions at the recent plenum -- which included creating high-level commissions to coordinate foreign policy, domestic security, and economic reform, strengthening the market and shrinking the state’s role in the economy, and easing the one-child policy -- have mostly served to clarify the battle lines in the Chinese political establishment over issues of reform. In the case of laojiao, those battle lines are especially entrenched, given that they were drawn in the beginnings of China’s Communist era. 

LAOJIAO FROM MAO TO NOW

Introduced soon after Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China in 1949, re-education through labor was a characteristically Maoist approach to maintaining sociopolitical order in a nation that was supposed to be bent on permanent revolution. Mao’s brand of Communism combined a peasant ethos of physical labor with a Soviet pathos for ideological rectitude. He celebrated the virtues of manual labor and was not shy about using the coercive powers of the state to remold the “poor and blank” Chinese people. His embrace of manual labor as a form of rehabilitation was truly revolutionary, in the sense of being a total negation of traditional Chinese Confucian emphasis on education as a moral and intellectual journey. 

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