Western analyses of deprivation of liberty in China

Abstract of a forthcoming chapter in the volume 'Legal Reforms and Deprivation of Liberty in China', co-authored with Elisa Nesossi, Sarah Biddulph and Susan Trevaskes

Western analyses of deprivation of liberty in China

One of the first studies ever produced on China’s correctional system in the twentieth century, if not the first, was authored in 1950 under the auspices of the Human Resources Research Institute. Known as the HRII, the Research Institute was a think tank of the US Air Force Headquarters, an institution that used to publish a series entitled Studies in Chinese Communism. One of the volumes in this series, by Henry Wei, contained a description of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) correctional system. The goal of this and other studies sponsored by the HRII was to explore ‘the psychological and sociological vulnerabilities of the Chinese Communist Regime’ (Wei 1955, vii). 

While the newly established Chinese government may indeed have felt vulnerable – in 1950 large areas of Southern China were not yet fully controlled by the People’s Liberation Army – it is interesting to notice how those who explained the goal and rationale of research on China’s prisons thought of China’s vulnerability as being somehow related to disclosing information about the country’s correctional institutions. 

After all, Henry Wei’s (1955) research was largely descriptive, and while his ideas were expressed using the style, language and vocabulary popular in the 1950s, he refrained from articulating any explicit moral judgment about China. Wei’s (1955) work, Courts and Police in Communist China, was paradigmatic, as it set the main themes of discussion in Western literature on Chinese prisons in the 1980s and beyond. 

This chapter provides a bird’s-eye view of these themes, comparing them to those that have been popularised by the Western media. In the absence of detailed information on how prisons operate in China, Western scholarly analyses have relied on descriptive rather than analytical approaches. Up until James Seymour’s (2005) publication Sizing up China’s Prisons, scholarship had largely struggled to conduct analyses of China’s prisons. 

While information about prisons may be provided by those who have had direct expe­rience of deprivation of liberty, the difficulty of accessing their testimonies is significant. Even in the absence of such difficulty, it can be imagined how the majority of those who have wit­nessed the reality of deprivation of liberty would hesitate to provide their testimonies, if only out of their desire not to relive emotionally painful experiences. 

Such a paucity of information, as well as the limited number of scholarly analyses, has affected the media’s ability to provide a nuanced picture of China’s correctional systems, and the significant gaps that still exist in our knowledge of China’s corrections result in difficulty for scholars to shed light on the grey areas that exist in them. These grey areas thus continue to exist. Their existence can either lead to attempts to explore them, or prompt reliance on existing tropes.

Early analyses of corrections in China emerged immediately after World War II, at the height of McCarthyism and the Cold War, and were thus preoccupied with China’s justice system. The memories of Nazi extermination camps and Soviet gulags were still all too vivid in the minds of authors and their public to allow for any discussion of prisons and re-educa­tion through labour (RETL) institutions that avoided relying on the tropes of the ‘Camp’ or the ‘Gulag’. The most recent literature on deprivation of freedom has started to question this orientation, and has searched for different points of view from which to tackle the difficult issue of corrections in China. 

But the many grey areas and blind spots in our epistemolo­gies and heuristics seem to be connatural with the object we are attempting to analyse. A closely similar set of limitations existed during what I will term the ‘first wave’ of analyses of China’s corrections. Works authored towards the end of the nineteenth century are histori­cally and authorially unrelated to the literature that has been produced since the 1950s. But perhaps locating empirical data on Chinese prisons today is as much a demanding task today as it was in 1800. While technology has significantly facilitated the work of researchers and analysts in the most diverse fields, constraints in time and in access to data pose limitations which, if transposed into the contemporary context, bear distant similarities to the difficulties experienced by those who researched China’s prisons during the nineteenth century.

Volume Description

The volume presents an extensive investigation into the process of reforms of detention powers in today's China and offers an in-depth analysis of the debates surrounding the reformist attempts. The chapters in this collection demonstrate that legislative and institutional reforms in this area result from political opportunities, openings and tensions at the central institutional levels of political authority,  and contingent social and political factors. The book examines legal and institutional reforms to institutions of detention and imprisonment that have occurred since the 1990s, with a particular focus on the 21st century. Its content follows three particular lines of enquiry concerning the issue of deprivation of liberty in contemporary China. The first deals with the academic and theoretical debates on the subject of imprisonment and detention. The related chapters explain the difficulties encountered in this area of research and understandings of the discourses of reform through labour in Western and Chinese scholarship. The second deals with the specific issues of criminal and administrative forms of deprivation of liberty, examining in particular the institutional and legislative dimensions, considering the relationship between reforms and criminal justice policy agendas. The third assesses the meaning of institutional reforms in the context of the changing state-society relationship in contemporary China

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