China’s Communist party leadership concluded an important agenda-setting meeting in Beijing on November 12. At this point much remains unclear about the decisions made at the Third Plenum of the 18th Communist Party Central Committee conclave, including changes to the One China policy, market reforms, and the abolition of the practice of Reeducation Through Labor. Independent media have no access to the proceedings, and even analysts able to read official party documents weren’t completely sure of what they meant. “Native Chinese language speakers like us with years of intensive training in Chinese .  .  . found it very difficult” to say whether the party’s statement on market reforms represented a meaningful change, a top Chinese executive of Bank of America Merrill Lynch wrote in an internal note, Business Insider reported.

The actions taken by senior Communist leaders at the party conclave should be viewed skeptically in light of Communist party general secretary Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power, and with the understanding that Chinese leaders are motivated by the desire to maintain control rather than the desire to liberalize. The announcement of the end of the system of Reeducation Through Labor is a good example.

First, and contrary to the impression given by some major international media, China has not abolished prison labor. Reeducation Through Labor (RTL) is separate from the much larger Chinese prison system. RTL is an administrative rather than judicial practice officials use to sentence people for up to four years without a trial. Its targets include petty criminals and drug addicts as well as people considered political threats, such as “petitioners,” ordinary citizens who go to Beijing seeking redress from the central government for abuses that their local authorities either ignore or commit. Estimates of the number of inmates incarcerated in RTL facilities range from 160,000 to 190,000. In its Human Rights Country Report on China for 2012, the U.S. State Department cited the official Chinese figure of 1.64 million for the number of inmates in the vast prison system, which also uses forced labor, while acknowledging that the actual number is unknown.

China’s Communist leaders have been under pressure from the public to rein in abuses of the RTL system. Stories like that of Tang Hui, a mother sentenced to 18 months in RTL after alleging official inaction and cover-up of her 11-year-old daughter’s rape and forced prostitution, have ignited outrage throughout the country thanks to social media. Responding to popular dissatisfaction by ending RTL does not necessarily signal reform. It is more likely that Chinese leaders are experimenting with ways to defuse unrest while maintaining control.

Furthermore, what the party takes away with one hand, it often puts back with the other. After the party stopped criminalizing “counterrevolution,” it began relying on charges of “endangering state security” and “subversion” to prosecute dissidents instead. Liu Xiaobo, the writer and 2010 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, is serving an 11-year jail sentence for “incitement to state subversion.” In recent years, says Renee Xia of China Human Rights Defenders, “Chinese authorities have increased the use of other tools, such as criminal detention and black jails, and the CCP wants to replace RTL with ‘community correction of unlawful behaviors,’ giving a green light to local authorities to punish those under their jurisdiction, including dissidents and whistle-blowers.” Turning the matter over to the National People’s Congress may also be a dead end. The National People’s Congress, like other state institutions, is subordinate to the party. Its failure to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Beijing signed in 1998, reflects not so much parliamentary inaction as the party line.

Another sign of the plenum’s real impact is reflected in the announcement that General Secretary Xi is setting up a committee on state security that will give him greater control over not only foreign and defense policy but also internal security matters. While Xi’s personal power is bound to increase, there is no indication that his “hands-on” approach is intended to advance the rule of law or political pluralism. An anticorruption campaign he unleashed earlier this year appears designed more to sideline political rivals than to tackle abuses. In fact, over the past several months, leading members of the New Citizens’ Movement, which seeks disclosure of officials’ assets, among other things, have been targeted for persecution. Such independent anticorruption initiatives were explicitly mentioned in a secret party memorandum, known as “Document Number 9,” rallying party cadres against “Western forces hostile to the country and dissidents within the country.”

A few months before he was detained by Chinese authorities in late 2008, Liu Xiaobo wrote an essay arguing that the 1980s political reforms for which the Communist party took credit were brought about by pressure “from the bottom up” rather than a desire from China’s top leaders to change the system. That vital observation about what has brought about “reform” from China’s Communist leaders in the past should be kept in mind while assessing the initiatives announced last week. Misunderstanding developments in an opaque, one-party dictatorship can lead to misplaced hopes for the country’s future and blindness to the real force for change.

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