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. 


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. 

Grounded in Mao’s philosophy of revolution, re-educative labor camps mushroomed across the country after the infamous Anti-Rightist Campaign in 1957, a major turning point in party rule. The Campaign sought to punish educated elites into submission to Mao’s authority by rounding up even the mildest of critics as “counterrevolutionary rightists.” Hundreds of thousands of people were condemned in the fervor of Anti-Rightism, and persecution of intellectuals and even party cadres continued throughout Mao’s rule. According to the University of Hong Kong’s Fu Hualing, the laojiao population swelled to an all-time peak of 500,000 by 1960. Senior party members were considered too high in rank for common laojiao, but many suffered the same fate in everything but name. Among them was Xi’s own father, Xi Zhongxun, who was consigned to years of mind-numbing manual labor as punishment for political crimes, including ties to an anti-Mao faction in the party. Even Deng Xiaoping ended up working on a tractor repair factory in a remote village in the late 1960s, during the height of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. 

By the end of the Cultural Revolution, the laojiao population had declined precipitously, since the hard-core Maoist radicals devised even more brutal methods to punish “counter-revolutionaries.” Ironically, it was Deng who reversed this tide. On the one hand, when he came to power after Mao’s death in 1976, Deng rehabilitated “rightist” intellectuals and cadres en masse. On the other, his era also saw the revival of laojiao to deal with local vagrants and misfits. This included political gadflies like future Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who spent three years in a labor camp in the late 1990s for having “disturbed the social order.” But for the most part, laojiao served as a sponge to soak up all kinds of “spiritually polluted” members of society. Drug addicts swelled the camp rolls in the 1990s, for example, and many followers of the banned meditation sect Falun Gong ended up in the camps in the 2000s. Earlier this year, Stanley Lubman, an expert in Chinese law, estimated the total camp population at 260,000, with the great majority of those drug cases.


Over the past decade, legal reformers, online activists, documentary filmmakers, and even mainstream media have drawn increasing attention to systematic abuses in the laojiao system. Yet as Jerome Cohen and Margaret Lewis show in their timely new book, Challenge to China: How Taiwan Abolished Its Version of Re-education through Labor, once such a system is in in place it is hard to eliminate. (Taiwan did so only in 2009.) Before the plenum, Reuters reported that Xi was facing major opposition to his plan for abolition, and predicted -- incorrectly -- that he would not be able to get it approved. All of which raises the question of why Xi has chosen to make this issue a centerpiece of his reforms.

The official Xinhua News Agency announcement of the decision offers some clues to Xi’s logic. The report mentions two “highly controversial” recent instances of laojiao. One was the heartbreaking story of Tang Hui, mother of an 11-year-old girl who was kidnapped, raped, and forced into prostitution for a period of months in 2006. Last August, Tang was condemned to 18 months of re-education by the public security bureau of Yongzhou, in Hunan province, because her public protests demanding the death penalty for her daughter’s tormentors were deemed to “seriously disturb the social order.” But in the age of social media, it has become harder for the state to silence protest. Weibo, China’s Twitter-like service, erupted in outrage at the news of Tang’s incarceration, and she was released after nine days. This summer, she even won her case against the local public security bureau, which had to give an apology in court and pay damages for the nine days of detention. Against the background of Tang’s story, Xi’s decision to abolish laojiao is not just progress toward rule of law in a procedural sense but also a testament to the ability of civic activism to create a more just society. 

The second example cited by Xinhua to justify the end of laojiao was the case of Ren Jianyu. It, too, consisted of a battle between online civic activists and local officials. Ren, a recent college graduate who had returned to his native Pengshui county to became a low-level village official, was incarcerated in a laojiao camp in September 2011 for “inciting the subversion of state power” (the same crime for which Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo now sits in a prison cell). How exactly had Ren subverted the state? By re-posting pro-democracy messages from his instant-messaging account and buying a T-shirt online emblazoned with the motto “Better Dead Than Unfree.” Ren spent a miserable year in the labor camp before being granted an early release -- but he too gained a large following online, and subsequently took his persecutors to court with the help of one of China’s most renowned civil rights attorneys, Pu Zhiqiang.

At first blush, the two cases would seem to be quite similar. There is, however, one detail that makes Ren’s case unique -- his village is in Chongqing municipality, an area that had been under the control of party chief Bo Xilai before his dramatic fall from high office last year. Bo’s recent conviction on charges of corruption sent a shock through China’s political scene. As it turned out, Bo’s abuse of power was one of the subjects of Ren’s insubordinate tweets before public security agents silenced him through labor.

Ren’s case thus suggests a more complex reason to abolish laojiao. The Chinese public has increasingly come to see laojiao as a tool of corrupt officials like Bo and his erstwhile ally Zhou Yongkang, the former minister of public security who is now reportedly being investigated by Xi. The local networks of cops and security agents who serve party officials are also scorned for their tendency to silence enemies through labor. Together, these officials are the “tigers and flies” that Xi has promised to destroy as part of his high-profile anti-corruption campaign, which has always been as much about reducing the power of the public security apparatus as it is about enhancing the authority of the courts or the legal rights of citizens.

In that sense, Xi’s move to get rid of laojiao should be considered together with another major decision made at the recent plenum -- the creation of a National Security Commission to tighten Xi’s authority not only over foreign policy but also over “state security” (or what the Chinese call “stability maintenance”) at home. Budgets for the latter have soared in recent years, to over $100 billion, surpassing even defense spending, and Xi apparently wants the department under his own control. Eliminating public security’s “private” network of re-education through labor centers can be seen as the other side of the coin.


Of course, getting rid of re-education through labor will not make juvenile delinquency or drug addiction go away, and whether its abolition marks real progress on these social issues depends, among other things, on the efficacy of the “community correction programs” that are meant to absorb the individuals now detained in labor camps. But the party deserves credit for publicly refuting the outdated Maoist notion that forcing an individual to work for the state will solve society’s problems. 

As for political dissenters -- whether they are mothers demanding justice for their families or young people asking for more democracy -- there remain plenty of other mechanisms to keep them quiet. Administrative detentions, residential surveillance, and good old-fashioned trial convictions for “subverting the state” are just a few tools still available to the state to crush civic activism. Ultimately, whether laojiao abolition marks a real turning point in advancing the rule of law depends less on Xi’s political skill in wresting power from “tigers and flies” and bringing the domestic security apparatus to heel than it does on his readiness to share political power -- including the right to criticize the party and organize political alternatives -- with the Chinese masses.

That will likely have to wait for another plenum. It will take time to know the true nature of Xi’s reform plans and whether he can carry them out. For now, it is worth celebrating the end of laojiao and using it as an opportunity to remember the many people -- from the Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo to the countless others who will always remain anonymous -- who suffered from the system’s injustices. 

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • JOHN DELURY is an Assistant Professor at Yonsei University’s Graduate School of International Studies, in South Korea. He is the Co-Author, with Orville Schell, of Wealth and Power: China's Long March to the Twenty-First Century. Follow him on Twitter @JohnDelury.
  • More By John Delury