How educational is a Chinese re-education camp?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Aug. 21 2008 4:32 PM

How Educational Is Re-Education?

What you learn, or don't learn, at a Chinese labor camp.

79-year-old mother, Wu Dianyuan, center, and her neighbor Wang Xiuying, 77. Click image to expand.
Wang Xiuying and Wu Dianyuan have been ordered to spend one year in a labor camp

Two women in their late 70s were sentenced to "re-education-through-labor" by the Beijing police after they applied repeatedly for a permit to hold a protest. How much education actually happens at these re-education camps?

Not much. The emphasis in re-education-through-labor is on the labor: People sentenced to so-called laojiao may spend as much as 12 to 14 hours a day, according to some accounts, doing work like construction, making bricks, or mining. (U.S. Customs investigations have also implicated Chinese prison labor in the production of binder clips and diesel engines.) That work serves as both a means of punishment and as a major source of revenue for a camp.


Since the re-education-through-labor camps were created in the late 1950s, they have—at least in theory—been oriented toward "rehabilitating" inmates both politically and morally. Over time, however, the emphasis on political study sessions appears to have declined. Some laojiao camps do have rules requiring inmates to study two hours a day, although one in-depth report on a camp in southern China found that sessions occurred only when there was a lull in production. (When the province tested whether the education was working, inmates were fed examination questions in advance.)

Re-education-through-labor provides local authorities with a way to detain citizens without filing criminal charges. (China's larger "reform-through-labor" system houses criminals who have actually faced a trial.) As a result, it has been used as an easy means to imprison political dissidents, Falun Gong followers, and petitioners who have been accused of disturbing the social order. But a large percentage of those in re-education-through-labor camps—most estimates put the total inmate population in the hundreds of thousands—are accused of more mundane vices like prostitution or drug addiction. Inmates can be sentenced to up to three years, although they can be kept for a fourth year for failing to admit their guilt or violating camp rules. Sentences can be appealed, but they are reviewed by the same Public Security Bureaus that handed them down.

Several proposals have been discussed in recent years to modify the re-education-through-labor system, which has received criticism from legal experts both inside and outside China. Aside from abolishing it altogether, reformers (PDF) have advocated allowing inmates weekend visits home and making it easier for them to get legal representation. (There has also been talk of changing the name of the system to something along the lines of "correctional centers," which might be less evocative of the system's origins under Mao.) Another possible modification might actually be to increase the amount of education at the camps, with more training given to inmates in preparation for work after their release.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Sharon Hom of Human Rights in China and Fu Hualing of the University of Hong Kong.

Jacob Leibenluft is a writer from Washington, D.C.


The World

The Budget Disaster that Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola

Are the Attacks in Canada a Sign of ISIS on the Rise in the West?

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

Is It Offensive When Kids Use Bad Words for Good Causes?

Fascinating Maps Based on Reddit, Craigslist, and OkCupid Data


The Real Secret of Serial

What reporter Sarah Koenig actually believes.


The Actual World

“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.

In Praise of 13th Grade: Why a Fifth Year of High School Is a Great Idea

Can Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu Pull Off One More Louisiana Miracle?

  News & Politics
Oct. 23 2014 3:55 PM Panda Sluggers Democrats are in trouble. Time to bash China.
Business Insider
Oct. 23 2014 2:36 PM Take a Rare Peek Inside the Massive Data Centers That Power Google
Oct. 23 2014 5:08 PM Why Is an Obscure 1968 Documentary in the Opening Credits of Transparent?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 23 2014 11:33 AM Watch Little Princesses Curse for the Feminist Cause
  Slate Plus
Oct. 23 2014 11:28 AM Slate’s Working Podcast: Episode 2 Transcript Read what David Plotz asked Dr. Meri Kolbrener about her workday.
Brow Beat
Oct. 23 2014 5:08 PM What Happens When You Serve McDonald’s to Food Snobs and Tell Them It’s Organic
Oct. 23 2014 4:36 PM Vampire Porn Mindgeek is a cautionary tale of consolidating production and distribution in a single, monopolistic owner.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 23 2014 7:30 AM Our Solar System and Galaxy … Seen by an Astronaut
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.