Xinjiang and “re-education”

By Jerome A. Cohen

Here’s an excellent article by Sarah Cook, “The Learning Curve: How Communist Party Officials are Applying Lessons from Prior “Transformation” Campaigns to Repression in Xinjiang.”

It brings to mind earlier Chinese Communist Party efforts to transform Chinese citizens. Beginning with the start of the People’s Republic of China and especially in the early 1950s there was a genuine criminal justice effort to make “laogai” 劳改 (reform through labor or RTL) succeed in transforming those formally prosecuted by the regime. It is still, of course, the formal criminal justice analogue to “laojiao” 劳教 (re-education through labor or RETL), which started, at least under that name, in 1957 as a key aspect of the “anti-rightist” campaign. By that time, however, the efforts to impose “thought reform” on prisoners had already largely run out of steam as the emphasis of the captors shifted to conventional punishment and more realistic views of what that punishment might accomplish. 

Of course, Chairman Mao’s hopes to transform the young people of urban China and the Party’s bureaucrats into ”socialist new men and women” by shipping them off to the hardships of the countryside during the Cultural Revolution a decade later was an even grander vision destined for failure.

This long modern Chinese history makes me think of efforts in the U.S. to convert gay people into heterosexuals. It also makes me remember my brief wish to protect my first-born child against the evils of eating too many sweets by warning him: “Peter, if you misbehave again, we’ll make you eat chocolate”. But, not surprisingly, Peter liked chocolate and still does, as do I!!