A legal education class in Gansu province, March 15, 2013. Photo credit: Gzxw.com.cn
Although much about China’s planned reform of reeducation through labor (RTL) remains uncertain, it seems quite likely that petitioning has been removed from the list of activities subject to RTL—or whatever new measure is chosen to replace it. On the surface, this looks like a victory for rule of law in China. For many years, individuals whose efforts to seek redress for grievances were deemed “abnormal” or “disruptive” faced being sent to RTL for one or two years without trial, legal representation, or effective means of appeal. However, even if petitioners no longer face RTL, the continuing imperative to “maintain stability” means that they still risk rights-violations through measures with even murkier basis in law.
One of these measures are the “legal education classes” that have been used in China for more than a decade. Like RTL, they provide local authorities with a highly flexible means of dealing with certain individuals whose behavior is considered to be socially disruptive but that doesn’t meet the criteria for criminal prosecution or public-order punishment. Originally targeted at members of Falun Gong and other “cult organizations,” use of these classes has been more recently expanded to include those who engage in persistent, disruptive, or mass petitioning activity.
For example, local authorities who believe that a person is planning to go to Beijing to petition can send him or her to a legal education class regardless of whether the person has taken any steps towards the capital. Compared with RTL, where the emphasis is on labor, legal education is primarily about “educating” attendees. Through a greater understanding of rules and regulations, participants are meant to be dissuaded from pursuing grievances through improper channels or pursuing matters that have officially been resolved.
Like RTL, this period of “education” is compulsory. But unlike RTL, which despite its problematic legal foundation is still governed by a set of national rules and regulations, legal education classes appear to be based on a patchwork of local measures enacted in response to political directives. In 2006, Jiangsu Province designed a regime of education targeting petitioners called the “Three Make Clears.” Through this system, participants were meant to gain clarity on “national, provincial, and county circumstances”; the relevant legal provisions; and the serious social harm caused by abnormal petitioning.
In some locations, legal education classes are held in fixed locations specially designated for the purpose. Other places hold classes in different venues depending on the number of “students,” which reportedly range from one or two to a dozen people.
According to one man sent to a legal education class in Jiangsu in 2007, local authorities in charge of petitioning “tricked” him into attending the class by summoning him to discuss a matter related to his grievance. Held in an abandoned school dormitory for more than 10 days, he claims that he and his “classmates” were denied basic personal hygiene like bathing or tooth brushing, were not able to change their clothes, and were unable to contact family members. Each day, local officials would come to the school to lecture the “students,” who were forced to stay in the school for an indeterminate period—a matter of days in some cases, and months in others—ultimately dependent upon their “performance.”
These deprivations of liberty are not implemented pursuant to any judicial decision and do not appear to be authorized by any duly enacted national legislation. There is no channel through which to challenge a decision to be “enrolled” in legal education. In other words, the system of legal education classes clearly violates China’s constitution and obligations under international human rights law.
But legal education classes continue to play an important role in China’s “stability preservation” system. In Hebei Province’s Fengning Manchu Autonomous County, situated between Beijing’s northern suburbs and Inner Mongolia, plans were recently announced for establishing a legal education school. Though the plans do not reveal much about what happens at the institution, the involvement of a broad variety of law enforcement and social service agencies appears to reflect the recent shift towards a more comprehensive approach to “social management.”
Implementation Plan for Establishing a Legal Education School: click to expand
Fengning Manchu Autonomous County
Implementation Plan for Establishing a Legal Education School
The Fengning Manchu Autonomous County Legal Education School is a base established to resolve petitioning problems and carry out legal education for targeted petitioners from the county who either go to Beijing [to petition] or present the danger of going to Beijing to engage in abnormal petitioning. It [provides] centralized education for petitioners and an effective method for guiding them to resolve their problems through normal channels and ultimately preserving the stability of the petitioning [system]. In order to better realize the functions of this base for education and training and create beneficial conditions for stabilizing petitioning in the county, this implementation plan has been specifically drafted.
To set up a legal education school to strengthen legal education and publicity. To centralize resolution of the problems of a group of targeted persons who engage in persistent, disruptive, or long-term petitioning and who have the potential to go to Beijing or who have already gone to Beijing or the provincial capital to engage in abnormal petitioning. To employ all effective measures to achieve ultimate resolution of each case or matter and bring an end to each complaint and petition, in order to ensure that the work goal of the “six guarantees ” can be realized.
II. Content of Study
The [county] justice bureau shall take responsibility for inviting personnel to lecture people attending the [legal education school] from bodies such as the people’s congress committee on internal and judicial affairs, the government legal affairs office, the [local] people’s political consultative conference committee on social and legal affairs, the justice bureau, and the bureau of letters and visits on subjects such as the Regulations for Letters and Visits, the Public Order Administration Punishment Law, the Land Law, and the Policy on Rural Industries and arrange for enrollees to study such things as the relevant laws and policies, implementation regulations, and complaint procedures.
III. Organization and Leadership
A leadership small group is to be established for the Fengning Manchu Autonomous County legal education school, to be headed by county party committee standing committee member and politico-legal committee secretary Comrade Liu Haiping and with justice bureau chief Comrade Han Yiwen taking the leading role; this group takes full responsibility for all details of work at the school. The public security bureau, procuratorate, court, bureau of letters and visits, health bureau, finance bureau, and other relevant departments participate jointly and assist with the work of the school in accordance with their respective competencies. Of these, the public security bureau, justice bureau, bureau of letters and visits, and health bureau shall each arrange for a member of their [leadership] teams to direct classes at the school.
IV. Personnel Arrangement
The justice bureau is requested to assign six employees; the bureau of letters and visits is to assign three employees; the public security bureau, procuratorate, and court are to deploy 12 police officers [in total]; the health bureau is to assign two hygiene and epidemic-prevention workers; and for each student, two accompanying persons are to be deployed from [his or her] township, town, or unit. Beyond this, it will be necessary to hire five logistics service employees.
V. Related Responsibilities
- The justice bureau is responsible for drawing up a corresponding work plan and a system and discipline [measures] for workers; responsible for the routine work of study classes such as organizing the study records and verifying the identities of enrolled persons, handling formalities for enrollment and discharge, and making arrangements for facilities; and responsible for the education and study of enrollees and arranging the content of the curriculum.
- The public security bureau is responsible for security and maintaining order within the legal education [school] and in the surrounding area. There should be a guaranteed contingent of 12 police officers (deployed from the public security bureau, procuratorate, and court) arranged to be on long-term duty at the school. They should also assist employees of the [school] to carry out such work as security screening and one-by-one inspection of persons participating in the courses.
- The bureau of letters and visits is responsible for coordinating with the relevant departments and township and town [governments] to resolve the problems of targeted petitioners participating in the courses.
- The health bureau is responsible for work related to hygiene and medical treatment for the legal education classes. Two health workers shall be permanently assigned to work at the [school] with supplies of routine and emergency medicines and essential medical equipment. They are responsible for health checks and routine medical treatment of enrollees. The epidemic-prevention unit shall carry out advance inspections of the school and be responsible for monitoring food service and hygiene and epidemic-prevention work in order to prevent the occurrence of food poisoning and other such incidents.
- The finance bureau is responsible for ensuring funding for the school.
- Township or town [governments] or relevant departments are responsible for transporting targeted petitioners to study at the school. They should strictly control the use of study classes to ensure that those sent to study classes are targeted people whose problems have been satisfactorily resolved but who insist on carrying out persistent or disruptive petitioning or who organize mass petitioning and those who present serious risk of going to Beijing to carry out abnormal petitioning. Township or town [governments] or departments shall assign two employees per enrollee to be responsible for accompanying the enrollee and keeping continual track of his or her progress, adjusting his or her attitude, and strictly preventing the occurrence of problems such as self-mutilation, suicide, or flight.
VI. Related Institutions (Attached)
Establish and improve rules and regulations. Establish a System of Employee Work, a System of Security Personnel Work, a System of Health Personnel Work, and a System of Accompanying Personnel Work.
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