Criminal FAQ

In analyzing China’s criminal justice system, one must first ask what constitutes such a system. Under Chinese law, the police have the discretion to decide, without any judicial proceeding, to send a person to laodong jiaoyang (or laojiao)  for “reeducation through labor” for up to three years. According to official sources, in 1997, some 230,000 people were held in such labor camps throughout China.Under American law, when the state seeks to punish someone bydepriving him of his liberty, it must act in accordance with the law of criminal  procedure.  The  state  must  charge  a  person  with  a  crime, convict him in a court of law, and a judge must impose a sentence. It is only in connection with a criminal charge that the state may take away a person's liberty. The United States also has administrative penalties. These, however, consist primarily of fines and debarment sanctions and definitely do not include jail. 

By making laojiao an administrative, as opposed to a criminal, proceeding, China has, for a significant number of cases, bypassed the procedural protections of its own criminal justice system.

Among some foreign analysts, there is confusion between laojiao,or “reeducation through labor,” and laogai, translated as “reform through labor.” Laojiao is an administrative sanction imposed at the discretion of the police, whereas laogai is a form of criminal punishment that may be imposed only after a criminal conviction.


The Public Security Bureau can recommend to a laojiao committee that a person be sent  to  reeducation through labor. The committee then makes the final decision without a judicial proceeding, providing no meaningful opportunity for a person to challenge  the decision outside the PSB. There is a right, of dubious effect, to challenge the decision in court after it has been imposed. This “judicial remedy” takes so long, however, that a person may serve his sentence before his case is even heard.The Ministry of Justice, which also administers China’s prisons, administers the laojiao camps. With the assistance of the SPP, I was able to visit such a facility in the city of Qingdao in March 2000.  The Qingdao Laojiao Camp houses about 200 male inmates. The officials refer to them as “students” and stress the educational nature of the institution, but it is clearly a prison, with bars on the windows and gates around the complex. Officials also stress the military style of living and education. 


About "students"  live in a room,  kept  in  immaculate condition. The camp has a library and a recreation room, as well as a facility to host visiting families, where inmates can stay with their visiting relatives if they have earned the privilege through good behavior. Inmates can write letters and communicate with the outside by telephone, and they sometimes receive  furloughs  for  important  family  events.  If an inmate had a legitimate job before incarceration, his employer is required by law to take him back upon completion of the "sentence."


I was told that 60 percent of the "students” were being punished for minor offenses such as petty theft, fighting, shoplifting, or vandalism. Laojiao is also used for drug addicts who have failed a drug rehabilitation program and resume drug use, although there were no drug addicts in the facility I visited.

The labor component of the program is reportedly for educational purposes only; that is, to provide inmates with skills and work habits to enable them to make a living when they are released. They can learn auto repair, motorcycle repair, and other skills.


Most of the inmates were "sentenced" to one year; some to a year and a half; and a small number to three years. Those sentenced to more than one year were usually repeat offenders. According to the officials, they had only a 5 percent recidivism rate.

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