Chinese justice system reform: Abolishing reeducation through labor, Creating a legitimate court system, Chinese magazine reports

Protests in Wukan. Photo from Southern Window article.
Protests in Wukan. Photo from Southern Window article.
Protests in Wukan. Photo from Southern Window article.

In December 2011, the citizens of Wukan, a village in Guangdong, staged an uprising, forcing the local government officials out of the village, in a protest over land sales of communal farm land. In the course of the protests, three democratically-elected village representatives had been arrested and one had died. But after the citizens took over their village, the governor of Guangdong, Wang Yang, did something notable: Instead of taking the village back by force, Yang allowed the village to conduct new elections with secret ballots. One of the protest leaders was named as the new Communist Party secretary of Wukan, and 107 village representatives were elected, in elections that a a Wall Street Journal blogger wrote, were “free of the Communist Party meddling that typically mars Chinese election results.”

According to the social and political magazine Southern Weekly (南风窗), which is headquartered in Guangdong, the Wukan situation could have been a sign of the new ways of thinking among Communist Party leaders about maintaining stability in China.

Maintaining stability has been a huge focus of the government since 1989, and the government usually does so through force, often violating human rights and their own laws in the process. But Southern Weekly reports that there is a new emphasis on rule of law being crystalized at the highest levels of government, even in the language of Xi Jinping. Among the reforms, the court system is supposed to be made into a legitimate channel for citizens to resolve grievances, reeducation through labor is being reformed, and officials are supposed to stop abusing the justice system for their own ends.

Following are excerpts ChinaHush has translated from Southern Window’s article, published in the January 30-February 12, 2014 edition, about the reforms of the “maintaining stability” system:

Like every year, 2014 began with the convening of a national meeting of the country’s political and legal system. Unlike previous years, the name of this year’s meeting was quietly raised in stature from “National Politics and Law Working Meeting” (全国政法工作会议) to “Central Politics and Law Working Meeting” (中央政法工作会议). After being upgraded, the meeting welcomed “history’s most luxurious” lineup, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China Xi Jinping and Central Secretariat of the Communist Party of China Liu Yunshan. Zhang Gaoli, Vice Premier of the People’s Republic of China, also attended the meeting. In previous years, the highest ranking official to attend is usually the general secretary of the Central Politics and Law Commission.

The Third Plenary Session of the 18th CPC Central Committee, which ended a short time before, had introduced a comprehensive plan for deepening reform. Among the reforms planned were a large number of political and legal system reform initiatives. Economic development and social stability are the two key words that can be said of last 30 years period of reform and opening up in China, but compared with the success of the progressively deepening economic reforms, each step taken to reform the social stability mechanisms has been much harder.

In response to the grim situation after 1989, the Central Politics and Law Commission made “maintaining stability” (维稳) the core mission of the political and legal system. In recent years, new ways of thinking about maintaining stability have become a hot topic in discussions amongst officials, scholars and the media. Clues about reforms are beginning to take shape.

Today, in the context of a new round of comprehensive reform, what kind of structure will the political and legal system take to create new systems of preserving stability?

Southern Weekly writes that the government in the past few years has been applying heavy pressure to maintain stability.

Around 2008, China’s maintaining stability structure was pushed to extremes. With the Olympics, the financial crisis, the National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (also known as the “two meetings” – 两会), the 60th anniversary of the founding of the nation, and other big agenda items, China has faced great challenges to “safeguarding general stability” in the economic, political, and social spheres. As a response, the political and legal system’s “maintaining stability mechanisms” have been working at full force to eliminate any disharmonious factor before they can grow into problems.

While the government has successfully maintained a firm grip on power over the short term, the practices have also proven to be unsustainable in the long term:

It can be seen that the extreme measures had the intended result. China once more was on smooth sailing in politics, the economy, and society. Yet also because of these actions, 20 years of problems with the maintaining stability system have been laid bare, and there are calls coming from all levels for new ways of thinking about maintaining stability.

China University of Political Science and Law Professor Ying Xing has been studying “maintaining stability” for a long time. He concluded there are three basic ways of maintaining stability: “pulling nails,” “opening the floodgates,” and “taking off the lid.” The three ways refer to either using brute force, giving favorable policies and economic compensation, or punishing officials. This has created an opportunistic kind of thinking where, “If it’s not loud, it won’t be solved. If it’s a little bit loud, it will be somewhat solved. If it’s really loud, it will be solved.” The costs of maintaining stability have become sky high, and there is a paradox where, “The more stability is maintained, the less stable it is.” As Ying Xing sees it, this kind of maintaining stability theory is a double-edged sword. Although it may be successful in the short-term, it would be easy for the government to fall into a death spiral from which they cannot escape.

Furthermore, government officials are using the pretext of “maintaining stability” to pursue their own self-interest:

Even more worrying academics is the observation that bureaucratic systems tend to continue growing larger with no end in sight. Although maintaining stability is a core mission at the national level, the maintaining stability system can be “kidnapped” and become used as a “tool” to promote the self-interest of officials and departments.

In 2010, People’s Forum magazine, a subsidiary of the People’s Daily, conducted a survey on the alienation of maintaining stability systems. Among those surveyed, about 80 percent thought the problem of some local governments falsely or improperly using the excuse of maintaining stability was “relatively serious” (较严重). Among the problems cited were hiding news of important events in the name of maintaining stability, interfering in judicial cases, abusing police authority, taking land, and more.

At the institutional level, some scholars have also observed that some departments now rely on the continuing problem of instability for their livelihood. An obvious logic is that for the institutions of maintaining stability, in an environment of greater instability, those institutions will become more prominent and get more power and funding. The elimination of “unstable factors” is unquestionably equal to the elimination of the maintaining stability department itself, which is obviously inconsistent with the conditions needed to make rational calculations. Under this perverse logic, there are bound to be greater paradoxes.

People’s Forum’s survey found that 70 percent think that the most serious problem causing alienation with maintaining stability’s objective is that officials “just want to protect their own hats, not alleviate the people’s suffering.” 20 percent thought the biggest problem was that they “pay attention to the result, but not the source” of instability. Professor Xu Xing of the Zhou Enlai School of Government at Nankai University said that the starting point for many local officials isn’t the preservation of social stability but rather “to keep their jobs, to use maintaining stability to obtain greater economic and political interests.”

Southern Weekly writes that the Wukan incident and the Weng’an incident, an incident that involved protests and riots over the alleged cover-up of a 16-year-old girl’s alleged rape and murder, were “warning bells to those in charge of maintaining stability.” The discourse of maintaining stability changed after Wukan to include more mentions of rights (权利) rather than just power (权力).

The fact that the public is losing trust in the justice system undermines the power-based approach:

With the occurrence of events such as the Weng’an incident and other intense mass incidents in recent years, the judicial system has also become a target of “attack” by the masses. The sliding level of public trust in the judicial system is a result of the government’s wielding power to preserve stability. The courts and the procuratorate are often passive in the face of maintaining stability actions. This touches the “final bottom line” of the quest for impartial justice. Once the justice system has been subverted in order to maintain stability, then the public has no one they trust when they want to make a complaint.

Thus, Xi Jinping gave a speech at the Central Politics and Law Working Meeting emphasizing the need to respect rule of law:

Xi Jinping introduced four “nevers” (四个“决不”) in his speech:
“Never allow the masses’ requests for police help to go ignored. Never allow ordinary people to lack the means to press a lawsuit. Never allow abuse of power to infringe upon the masses’ legal rights and benefits. Never allow law enforcement to break the law and create unjust and false charges.”

This implies that the judicial system being dominated by power—the idea of using suppression to maintain stability—is being adjusted to a kind of system that makes protecting rights the goal while maintaining stability.

The biggest systematic change is in regards to the emphasis on “the way of rule of law and the thinking of rule of law.” There are two key differences between maintaining stability through rule of law and maintaining stability through power. Firstly, abandon the results-oriented power-based approach. This way of thinking can just arrive at a stable result by any means necessary—even if unscrupulous. At the politics and law working meeting, the idea was proposed that, “The red line of the law cannot be bumped. The bottom line of the law cannot be crossed.” Secretary of the Central Politics and Law Commission of the CPC Meng Jianzhu’s called this “Bottom Line Thinking.” It means the government cannot use illegal means to pursue the goal of maintaining stability.

Secondly, your political vision can’t merely consist of looking at the problems of instability. Maintaining stability through rule of law requires considering the people’s rational and legal interests as a legal issue, and using the courts to settle matters. This further requires differentiating political stability issues with social stability issues, and even if it is a political stability issue, it can still be solved through the judicial channel. Central Party School Professor Zhang Hengshan thinks, “Completely abandon the traditional class struggle theory, and highlighting the protection of the rights and benefits of the masses of people is of great significance.”

The new thinking about maintaining stability has become increasingly clear and has already supplanted the old official discourse, but only if the ideological change is accompanied by corresponding changes in organization can we welcome a new structure.

Among the changes are reforms to and, reportedly, the abolition of reeducation through labor:

First, the 60-year-old practice of reeducation through labor is being abolished. Reeducation through labor was once considered a “tool for maintaining stability.” Under the leadership of the public security apparatus, it was embraced for the punishment of crimes, including many vague “pocket crimes” [also known as “indefinite crimes,” crimes that are not clearly defined, like “hooliganism”], thus this tool had a lot of “flexibility.” Prior to the official “abolition of reeducation through labor”, many places around the country have already stopped the practice. Although new alternatives such as “community corrections” and other systems have not yet been established, in the previous year’s “institutional vacuum period,” China’s maintaining stability situation hasn’t worsened. According to statistics, the problems of instability have declined, both in terms of administrative cost and number of mass incidents.

Furthermore, the article reports, since 2012, local officials have stopped the practice of serving concurrent posts as the secretary of the politics and law committee at the same time that they are serving as public security bureau chief.

Meng Jianzhu, the secretary of the Politics and Law Commission, told leaders that last year’s National Politics and Law Working Meeting, “Leaders shouldn’t critique specific court cases.”

The justice system and the “maintaining stability” structure in China will be big issues as Xi Jinping’s term goes forward. Will the government really make real changes? The Communist Party usually does reform slowly, so we probably won’t know the results of the agenda any time soon.

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