Jan 16, 2013 03:29 PM

Progress on Labor Camps Must Be Starting Point

The detested administrative punishment of "re-education through labor" may finally end this year. A proposal for reform tabled at a law and order work conference this month is said to have the central government's backing and will take effect once the National People's Congress Standing Committee gives its nod.

This is good news. It represents progress built on the recent cases of people like Ren Jianyu and Tang Hui, whose fight for freedom made the news. But many problems still have to be solved before police excess can be curbed.

To deprive a person of his freedom through labor re-education is an anachronism. By the second half of the 20th century, most countries had come to agree on the basic principles on restricting freedom set out in the United Nations' International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Yet, China's punishment of re-education through labor, which began in 1957 and continues today, gave local security and administrative officials the power to strip a citizen of his freedom for up to four years without needing approval from a court or state prosecutors. The police have long been the major agency to wield this power.

Labor re-education originated, of course, in the terrible forced labor camps of the former Soviet Union.

Today, a civilized society is judged by its ability to protect people's personal freedom. It is a prerequisite for social harmony. A society that cannot protect people's freedom is also one where police power runs amok. This largely refers to the security police, but in China also includes criminal investigation officers. Such unjust detention not only harms the person in question, but also makes the infringement of other people's civil liberties and rights easier.

In 1215, the English nobility forced King John to sign the Magna Carta that limited his powers. The charter's Article 39 states: "No free man shall be taken, or imprisoned, or dis-seized, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any way harmed – nor will we go upon or send upon him – save by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land." This provision protected not only the noble class but also ordinary people, paving the way for the establishment of the English writ system in the 15th century and the acceptance of habeas corpus in the 17th century.

Just as there can be no private ownership of property without laws protecting ownership, people cannot be said to be free if there are no laws protecting their freedom. This is why we must rely on a court of law – one that is independent or at least relatively independent – to make decisions about our freedom.

Among the three branches of government power, the executive (which oversees the police) holds the greatest power in China. As a result, a large number of laws are drafted by executive departments then approved by the legislative departments. Moreover, the judiciary has little oversight over the executive, which uses police power as a tool to get its way.

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