Studying Laojiao in China from Criminological Perspectives

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Criminological Perspectives:
Assessment on Laojiao System in China


Punishment, prisons and incarceration play critical roles in our contemporary societies despite much criticism on their effectiveness of rehabilitation[1]. In China, there is a punishment system “Re-education through laboring” (Laojiao) enabling the police to sentence people who have committed minor offences to prison-like facilities without trial[2]. Reformed-minded law makers, judges and scholars both in China and foreign countries have been calling for the reformation of the system.

This essay serves for assessing the laojiao system from criminological perspectives and focusing on two questions, “Is laojiao a good prison system?” and ‘Should laojiao be reformed?”. It consists of five parts: 1) Functions of Laojiao vs. Functions of Prison 2) From Education to Laboring Punishment, 3) “Should Laojiao be reformed?” and 4) Conclusion

First question: “Is laojiao a good prison system?”

According to the Chinese orthodox penology which is heavily influenced by the Marxist and Maoist ideology[3], punishment through laboring transforms prisoners, and thus is a means to achieve the purpose of reforming and rehabilitation of offenders. The reform process takes place through collective labor, by which the planned penal economy makes a significant contribution to the state economy. [4] Although the doctrine is heavily criticized in the perspective of criminology[5], it is necessary to go through all the functions which laojiao performs in order to better analyze whether it qualifies as a good prison system.

What is laojiao?

Laojiao is an administrative punishment created as a political control in the 1950s to punish “minor counterrevolutionaries” and “rightists” and to discipline the labour force.[6] Laojiao is imposed by the police who are authorized by law to bypass the criminal process and summarily subject an offender to a maximum of 3 years’ incarceration. Traditionally, there are 4 functions for Laojiao:

1. Laojiao as crime control

Laojiao has supplemented criminal sanctions by punishing minor offences, the consequences or the circumstances of which are not serious enough to trigger punishments from Chinese Criminal Law[7]. It also targets minor violations of the law and habitual minor offenders[8]. Moreover, it exerts a broader control by punishing harmful or immoral acts and is used as a key device to maintain social order and stability[9].

2. Laojiao as a drug control measure

Laojiao has been regarded as a drug control measure for long. However, with the enactment of the Law on Narcotics Control in 2007, laojiao’s function as a drug control measure has been lost.

3. Laojiao as an investigative detention

It is used to facilitate police investigations by prolonging detention beyond the period allowed by law. Where a person is suspected of having committed an offence, the police may send the person to Laojiao for further investigation. Only if the facts were clarified and sufficient evidence gathered would the police take further actions.[10] 4. Laojiao as political control

Laojiao was used to punish people who were calling for further political liberalization and were critical to the government. After the 911 attacks, the government itself actively revealed details of terrorist organizations and terrorist activities in China and spread the message that it is also a victim of terrorism, arguing that it is thus justified in taking tough measures (laojiao) against domestic terrorists and terrorist organizations[11]. Increasingly the government is using Laojiao to detain religion/ethnicity-based dissidents in Xinjiang. [12]

Conventional functions of a prison

In Criminology, an ideal prison performs four fundamental functions, namely incapacitation, retribution, deterrence and rehabilitation. An exhaustive analysis will be conducted below on whether laojiao system qualifies as a good prison...
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