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Reform of Re-education through Labor in China

Posted by plosmedicine on 31 Mar 2009 at 00:33 GMT

Author: Joseph D. Tucker
Position: Research Fellow
Institution: Massachusetts General Hospital
Submitted Date: December 17, 2008
Published Date: December 18, 2008
This comment was originally posted as a “Reader Response” on the publication date indicated above. All Reader Responses are now available as comments.

The research article by Amon and Cohen [1] uses an international human rights framework to analyze detention of intravenous drug users in China, citing egregious health and human rights abuses. While more light is certainly needed to clarify these dark institutions, the piece fails to position the re-education of drug users and sex workers in an appropriate social context that could be used to gain traction on this issue and catalyze reform. Public health voices [2] were far preceded by legal scholars [3] in calling for the reform of the re-education through labor system; recently a group of Chinese lawyers and academics wrote an open letter to the State Council (China’s cabinet) calling for reform of re-education through labor [4]. China’s lawyers have argued to overhaul this system not only for important human rights issues that Amon and Cohen revisit, but also because they violate China’s own constitution [4]. Perhaps more importantly, the research article mentions NGO workers in Guangxi who helped obtain access to informants, but fail to mention that it is these very local social movements in the context of China's larger evolving civil society that can serve as a fulcrum for reform on behalf of incarcerated populations that are more vulnerable to HIV infection. This is not to downplay the power that China’s Public Security Bureau and local police wield in creating and continuing coercive detention centers that certainly violate basic health and human rights, but if recent legal and political changes are a bellwether for the possibility of re-education reform in the near future, then we must move beyond police-dependent policy changes and identify the local actors, organizations, and Chinese legal and social movements that could realize an actionable plan for changing re-education through labor in China. A fundamental transformation of China’s re-education through labor system will depend not only on using international human rights arguments and an explicit public health mandate, but also acknowledging and engaging China’s burgeoning legal infrastructure and civil society.


1. Cohen J, Amon J (2008) Health and Human Rights Concerns of Drug Users in Detention in Guangxi Province, China. PLoS Med 5: e234.
2. Tucker JD, Ren X (2008) Sex worker incarceration in the People's Republic of China. Sex Transm Infect 84: 34-35.
3. Biddulph S (2007) Legal reform and administrative detention powers in China. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.
4. (2007) Academics call for end to China camps. China Post. Beijing. December 5th. Available online at:

No competing interests declared.