Abolishment of Re-education through Labour: Strengthening Rule of Law and Judicial Reform

The policy report summarizing RTL expert consultation and learning seminar results, jointly drafted by UNDP and China Law Society, was submitted to the Judicial Reform Office of the CPC Commission of Political and Legal Affairs.

Tang Hui is one of many who have found themselves on the wrong side of the re-education through labour (RTL) system in China.  After the sexual assault of her daughter in 2006, Tang was dissatisfied with the sentence handed to the seven offenders and raised her grievance with the verdict.  As a result, she was sent to a camp under the RTL system without formal trial.


The RTL system was created in China in the mid 1950s as an administrative punishment for minor crimes, to deal with persons who were not “politically reliable” but had not committed crimes for which they could be sent to jails or “labour reform camps.”


In practice, the RTLS has been used by China’s administrative agencies to silence petitioners without formal arrest or trial and detain minor offenders, such as drug abusers and sex workers whose offenses do not fall under the Criminal Law. In recent years, the system has come under scrutiny due to several high-profile RTL cases, raising questions over unchecked administrative powers, operating outside the formal legal system.


In March 2013 the Government decided to address this issue, creating an opportunity for UNDP to provide policy services to contribute to the reform agenda. UNDP and the China Law Society (CLS), a key think tank for China’s rule of law and legal reform, committed to conduct research to inform the RTLS reform process, particularly focusing on international experiences on rule of law and human rights.


A group of 30 leading experts spent five months researching the subject. At UNDP’s suggestion, the research included an analysis of the experience of Viet Nam, a country with a largely similar legal context, which has recently conducted similar reforms.


UNDP and CLS organised an expert consultation in October, in advance of the 3rd Party Plenum the following month, and invited two representatives from the Ministry of Justice of Viet Nam to share their experiences. A policy report based on this consultation was submitted to policy-makers, directly informed the decision, passed on 12th November, to abolish the RTL system, affecting 60,000 people, like Tang Hui, detained in 350 camps countrywide.


The decision to abolish the RTL system is a major step forward for China, and UNDP will continue to support the process as this momentous legal reform is implemented.  UNDP’s further work with CLS will focus on technical inputs for the revision of key laws and on the selection of local sites where RTLS will be ended and the community correction system piloted and then scaled-up countrywide.


As part of South-South cooperation, UNDP will in 2014 facilitate a second dialogue between China and Viet Nam on ways in which the Vietnamese experience can influence the actual implementation of the abolishment of the RTLS and the administrative sanctions system in China.