By Ralph Benko
China appears to be on the verge of closing, or, at minimum, seriously reforming its 350 forced labor camps, together with injecting due process into its system. It is an historic development, one under-reported in the mainstream Western media. The New York Times and Reuters, but far too few other media, are on this story. This may turn out to be the world’s most important humanitarian development of the year, perhaps even of this young century.The New York Times’s Andrew Jacobs, last December 15, was the first first-string reporter to catch the Tea Party-like popular groundswell against China’s Gulags:
“’It’s high time we demolish this unconstitutional and abusive system that violates basic human rights, fuels instability and smears the government’s image,’ said Hu Xingdou, a professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology who frequently rails against the system that Mao Zedong created in the 1950s to take down suspected class enemies and counterrevolutionaries.
“People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s mouthpiece, took aim at the system last month, saying it had become ‘a tool of retaliation’ for local officials. In October the head of a government judicial reform committee noted a broad consensus in favor of addressing the system’s worst abuses.
“And in a widely circulated recent essay, the vice president of the Supreme People’s Court, Jiang Bixin, argued that the government must act within the law if it is to survive. ‘Only with constraints on public power can the rights and freedoms of citizens be securely realized,’ he wrote.
“China’s incoming president, Xi Jinping, has not yet weighed in on the issue, but reform advocates are encouraged by a speech he gave this month talking up the widely ignored protections afforded by China’s Constitution, which include freedom from unlawful detention and the right to an open trial. “We must establish mechanisms to restrain and supervise power,” Mr. Xi said.
Hopeful sentiments for substantial liberalization — and even ultimate abolition — of forced labor camps promptly began to be borne out upon the inauguration of President Xi, as reported by Reuters’s Michael Martina and Terril Yue Jones in January:
China will reform its controversial system of forced labor camps this year, state media reported on Monday, which would mark a first step toward legal reform promised by new Communist Party chief Xi Jinping.
China’s “re-education through labor” system, in place since 1957, empowers police to sentence petty criminals to up to four years’ confinement without going through the courts, a system that critics say undermines the rule of law and is used against political activists.
China has 350 labor camps throughout the country, housing about 160,000 inmates, according to Xinhua, which cited the bureau of “re-education through labor” under the Ministry of Justice.
Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, a New York-based advocacy group, said there has been a precedent for a new leadership to take a symbolic step of reforming problematic systems.
“It has been my sense that Xi Jinping means business and that there would be a departure from the caretaking years of Hu and Wen,” he said, referring to outgoing President Hu Jintao and outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao.”
Sure enough, on February 15 Asia News reported: “The Chinese government has started to release pro-democracy dissidents from the ‘re-education through labor’ camps (laojiao).”
“The Chinese leadership understands that there is much to be done and many challenges ahead. In addition to ceasing brutal persecution of religious sects, more humane treatment of ethnic minorities — such as the Tibetans, who are protesting oppression and cultural liquidation by self-immolation, and the beautiful Uyghur people and culture concentrated in Xinjiang — is essential. This is an imperative if the CCP wishes to retain legitimacy. It is encouraging that the new administration highlights in its platform the duty of the party to ‘lead people of all ethnic groups.’ Deeds must follow such words promptly.”
Deeds, indeed, promptly are following. This certainly has nothing to do with the small voice of this column and everything to do with the fundamental decency of the Chinese people … and the recognition by the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party of the imperative of human rights, the elimination of corruption, and reform as the high road by which China rapidly can come to the forefront of the world in the full dignity that befits this venerable culture.
The release of human rights advocates, which is beginning, and the closure, or deep reform, of the Gulags of China are one of the brightest human rights moments of the 21st century. China is overtaking the United States in volume of world trade. Of greater significance is that while Washington is moving retrograde on matters of civil liberties, such as Habeas Corpus, Beijing is moving forward.
President Xi’s statement that “We must establish mechanisms to restrain and supervise power,” Vice President of the Supreme People’s Court’s Jiang’s declaration that “Only with constraints on public power can the rights and freedoms of citizens be securely realized,” could have been taken directly from Locke and Jefferson.
Of course, more must follow, especially respecting the promised benevolence toward ethnic and religious minorities. It is in China’s, and the Chinese Communist Party’s, interests to nurture, rather than suppress, the Uyghurs and Tibetans and even to show forbearance toward shrill sectarians such as the Falun Gong. While Falun Gong would appear, from its rhetoric, to have more to learn than to teach about “truth, compassion and forbearance” it is not the Taiping Heavenly Army and doesn’t warrant comparable treatment. As that greatest of world sages, Lao Tzu, wrote (translation courtesy of Taoism.net ),
The large country only wishes to gather and protect people
The small country only wishes to join and serve people
So that both obtain what they wish
The larger one should assume the lower position
The Nobel Peace Prize Committee is called upon to play close attention. If justified by continued humanitarian deeds an award to Xi could be transformational both for China and the world. China, properly, cares deeply about its international prestige. Receiving the Nobel Peace Prize would be among the most powerful rewards for the advocates of deep reform.
The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded, in 2010, to Liu Xiaobo. Liu’s relentlessly subversion of state power, for which he is imprisoned, is forthrightly seditious. Consider Liu’s provocative 1988 call for 300 years of renewed Western colonialism of China as the required instrument of reform. America, too, used to imprison people for sedition. Thomas Jefferson, upon becoming president, pardoned them all. To commute the sentence of this Chinese Abbie Hoffman, while not nearly as important as gentler treatment of ethnic and religious minorities, would be yet additional evidence that Xi “means business.”
The deadline for this year’s nominations of the Nobel Peace Prize closed on February 1. It would have been premature to award the Peace Prize to China in 2013. Yet if the release of political dissidents, and the intensity of the systemic reform — most preferably elimination — of its Gulags continues, and meaningful steps taken in implementing the official promise “… to unite and lead people of all ethnic groups in the new historic journey,” there is no nobler use to which the Nobel Peace Prize could go than to recognize Xi and the Chinese Communist Party.
Ralph Benko, an economics policy expert living and working in Washington, DC, served on detail as deputy general counsel to an Executive Office of the President agency under President Reagan and to a Reagan presidential commission.