During the Third Plenum of the 18th Party Congress last November, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) announced the abolition of Re-education Through Labor (RTL), or laojiao, the largest formal institution of administrative detention, which enabled Chinese police to incarcerate an individual for up to four years without a trial. In the decision document issued following the Third Plenum, the Party also hinted at the future direction of China’s penal code—to “improve the community corrections system” (Xinhua, November 15, 2013). Community corrections, a system that requires a trial but, once convicted, still allows arbitrary detentions of offenders for 30 days, now appears to be one of the preferred tools for local officials to maintain social stability and deal with dissidents.
History of Community Corrections
The use of community corrections has spread rapidly in China in recent years, especially since the abolition of RTL in late 2013. Community corrections, widely used around the world today, serves as an alternative to incarceration. Convicted offenders serve a sentence that is based on supervised programs in their residential community, as opposed to being confined in a prison. Compared with incarceration, community corrections has many advantages. These include decreased costs and allowing offenders to stay with their families, which research suggests deters criminal behavior, reduces recidivism and promotes pro-social behavior.
In China, community corrections is used to administrate criminals sentenced to control (guanzhi), suspended sentence (huanxing), temporary parole (zanyu jianwai zhixing) and probation (jiashi) (Procuratorial Daily, March 22, 2013). Before the implementation of the community corrections system, people who were sentenced to any of the above categories were not put in jail but supervised by their local police station. The legal enforcement of community corrections is now under the leadership of the Ministry of Justice, and daily administration falls to local justice bureaus. All justice departments at the provincial level have their respective bureaus of community corrections, and local community corrections offices have been set up in about 90 percent of county, city or district-level justice bureaus (Ministry of Justice, May 2014). Governments at all levels across the country have been aggressively recruiting new community corrections personnel, and a portion of the personnel were transferred from the former RTL system (Xinhua, January 21; Xinhua, August 25).
Community corrections was first introduced to China in 2003 after the Supreme People’s Court, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, the Ministry of Public Security and the Ministry of Justice jointly issued the policy document “Announcement on the Execution of Community Corrections Pilot Work” (2003). Pilot programs were first carried out in Beijing and Shanghai, followed by a nationwide trial program in 2009. Provisions regarding community corrections were added to the Criminal Law (2011) and the Criminal Procedure Law (2012) in 2011 and 2012, respectively, providing legal basis for the community corrections system. In 2012, the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Justice jointly issued the document “Regarding Further Strengthening the Work of Guaranteeing Community Corrections Funding” (2012), which makes funding for community corrections part of the overall budget at each level of the government. However, an independent and comprehensive law on community corrections is still missing. A draft of the Community Corrections Law was introduced in 2013 and is currently under review by the State Council. It is expected to be sent to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress for approval (Ministry of Justice, July 29, 2013). Both President Xi Jinping and Meng Jianzhu, Secretary of Central Political and Law Commission, the Party organ that oversees legal enforcement authorities, have made speeches pushing for the legislation to be passed (Ministry of Justice, August 25).
The Chinese government’s use of community corrections has expanded dramatically since it was given its legal basis in 2012. By this February, five years since its nationwide rollout, over 1.8 million people had been through community corrections, with that total doubling in the last two years (Ministry of Justice, May 17, 2012; Xinhua, May 27). The number of offenders currently in community corrections is nearly half of China’s prison population, which is technically a separate system (709,000 people in community corrections as of May 2014, compared with 1.64 million in prisons in 2012, the latest numbers available from the Ministry of Justice) (Ministry of Justice, May 27; Xinhua, April 25, 2012). Of note, China’s official prison population does not include people held in custody and education centers, drug rehabilitation centers and other extralegal detention facilities. They are generally offenders of lesser criminal acts, as were people put in the RTL system. This suggests there are people who would have previously been sent to RTL camps that are now likely placed in community corrections.
No Significant Change From RTL
China’s community corrections system retains many of the negative aspects of RTL and should not be considered an improvement in its current form. Jiang Aidong, the Director of Community Corrections Bureau at the Ministry of Justice, claims that the implementation of community corrections is intended to reflect international practices and “explore, reform and perfect China’s penal enforcement system.” Jiang further contends that community corrections is not a replacement of RTL, since the community corrections statute only applies to adjudicated criminals, not administrative offenders (Xinhua, January 5). While it is true that the decision to place someone in community corrections must be rendered by the court, as opposed to RTL’s authority falling to police officers without judicial oversight, community corrections retains RTL’s empowerment of the police or other government officers to arbitrarily detain adjudicated offenders, and undermines offenders’ ability to exercise their constitutional rights.
The pending Community Corrections Law appears written to enable the continued violation of the Chinese constitution by denying basic guaranteed rights to citizens through penal procedures. Article 44 stipulates, “To exercise their freedom of speech, press, assembly, association, protest and demonstration, offenders serving sentences in communities should obtain the approval of the community corrections agencies” (2013). This runs contrary to the higher level of law, the Criminal Law (2011), since the Criminal Law only strips away the civil and political rights of a narrow scope of serious and violent felons, and community corrections offenders do not fall into those categories of offenders (Minsheng Guancha, April 16). Article 50 also stipulates that offenders who “could possibly obstruct the public order of important public places or during important national holidays and activities, but do not meet the conditions for readmitting to prison” can be “centrally managed in community corrections facilities […] for up to 30 days.” This stipulation enables the authorities to exercise a broad mandate for arbitrary detention and isolation, restricting the personal freedom of offenders for as long as 30 days without them actually violating corrections regulations. It could particularly affect offenders who want to voice their opinions in public, especially those who are placed in community corrections for protesting or petitioning in the first place.
New Preferred Policy for Stability Maintenance
Community corrections is embedded in China’s omnipresent stability maintenance system. As Minister of Justice Wu Aiying puts it, “Community corrections work is an important part of the work of maintaining social stability” (Ministry of Justice, August 25). While describing the stability maintenance aspect of community corrections, Professor Zhang Jing of Beijing University of Technology says that in all the nearly 20 policy documents regarding community corrections issued by the Beijing Bureau of Justice, “risk prevention” and “emergency notification” are emphasized, so that if there is any unrest involving community corrections offenders, they can be dealt with swiftly and at the source. Besides the heavy presence of correctional officers from the prison system in communities, the Beijing government also employs residents to assist in the monitoring of offenders in their communities. According to Zhang, the Beijing government specifically looks for those who are 40 to 50 years old, unemployed and have been living in their respective communities for a long time (People’s Daily Online, April 29). These people, called “assistant managing personnel,” or xieguan yuan, act not only as effective instruments of information gathering and reporting, but also ideological propagandists, tasked with helping offenders and their families develop an acceptance of the policies of the government (People’s Daily Online, April 29). This management model of community corrections is also widely used in other cities
Community corrections is also used extensively to monitor and control offenders, especially during national events and holidays. In their annual work summary reports, some local justice bureaus boast of their “zero petition rate” and “zero protest rate” of community corrections offenders, which suggests these governments make concerted efforts to prevent and stop offenders from presenting their cases to higher authorities and airing their grievances in public (Tongren Government, July 10, 2013; Lishui Bureau of Justice, April 2). Furthermore, authorities also punish community corrections offenders for speaking to the media. For example, a policy document issued by the Guangdong Provincial Department of Justice, the “Tentative Provisions Regarding the Evaluation and Categorization of Community Corrections Offenders,” lays out a points-based evaluation mechanism. It stipulates that offenders who speak to the media will have four to five points deducted from their evaluation report. If an offender accumulates 18 demerit points within three months, he or she can be detained (Guangdong Provincial Government, December 1, 2013). Other provinces have implemented a similar evaluation mechanism (Southern Metropolis Daily, December 16, 2013). Despite not yet becoming law, Article 50’s emphasis on maintaining stability during “important national holidays and activities” is already a key facet of community corrections. For example, during the plenary meetings of the National People’s Congress and the National People’s Political Consultative Conference, or lianghui, this April, many local governments issued policy documents requiring community corrections officers to check on offenders twice a day and strictly prohibited them from leaving town (Yuhang Justice Bureau, April 10).
A Tool to Silence Dissent
Community corrections is an integral part of the CCP’s efforts to punish and silence dissent. Local authorities use community corrections in an attempt to leverage the program’s expansive powers to inhibit political dissidents from continuing their activities. As mentioned earlier, community corrections includes those sentenced to control, suspended sentence, temporary parole and probation. Numerous political dissidents have been sentenced to one of these categories. Among them, Gao Zhisheng, a well-known rights lawyer who was recently released after serving three years in jail, was first given five years of suspended sentence in 2006 by the Beijing First Intermediate Court for inciting subversion of state power. In 2011, Hangzhou based dissident Lu Gengsong, while being released after four years in prison for inciting subversion of state power, was pressed by authorities to sign the Community Corrections Affidavit. Lu refused and claimed that he would not succumb to community corrections. In August of this year, he was again arrested and charged with inciting subversion of state power (Human Rights in China, August 13). In 2012, Hainan-based environmentalist Liu Futang, who was once extolled as an “environment fighter” by the Party mouthpiece People’s Daily, was given three years of suspended sentence (Radio Free Asia, April 12, 2013). This July, Liang Haiyi, who was detained in 2011 for participating in the pro-democracy “Jasmine Revolution” protests, was formally sentenced to two years of suspended sentence (Radio Free Asia, July 18).
Recent developments show that community corrections is also being used to target religious groups and petitioners. For example, the website of the Justice Bureau of Zhuanghe City in Liaoning Province states that people who have been sentenced to community corrections in Zhuanghe include those who are “using a cult to undermine law enforcement” (Zhuanghe Bureau of Justice, May 10). Several articles also describe how Falun Gong practitioners were “reformed” after being helped by community corrections officers (Ziyun Government, March 7; Shanxin Kaifeng, January 16). One report mentions that a man and his son in Hubei Province were sentenced to community corrections for their non-stop efforts to protest the forced demolition of their home (Wuhan City Donghu District Procuratorate, July 20, 2012).
Further Judicial Reforms Needed
In the past, incarcerating dissidents, such as Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, resulted in negative publicity for the Chinese government. It now appears that Beijing’s optimal strategy is to keep them quiet without actually locking them up. Besides formally sentencing dissidents to community corrections, the Chinese government has a history of controlling dissidents without any legal justification, closely tracking their activities online, physically following them, or, when necessary, placing them under house arrest. With the passing of the Community Corrections Law and the continuing expansion of the community corrections system, such activities against dissidents could be openly codified, and better financed, staffed, organized and coordinated between different governmental agencies at different localities. In other words, the proposed law would make community corrections a more powerful system, implanted in residential communities and within the legal framework, to monitor and control those who fall out of favor with the CCP. As dissident-intellectual Mo Zhixu told the author, “to enact the Community Corrections Law is to give legal justification to the stability maintenance system” (Author’s interview, September 18).
The original theory of community corrections was intended to help offenders reduce the probability of continued criminal behavior and better adjust to society. Yet what the Chinese authorities are doing—repressing offenders from airing their grievance and seeking redress—certainly does not improve the offenders’ ability to rejoin society as a normal citizen. The Chinese government claims that abolishing RTL and promoting community corrections signifies its efforts to reform and modernize the criminal justice system and advance the rule of law, but it is also becoming clear that community corrections is a core element of China’s stability maintenance mechanism.