China signaled again on Monday that it may put an end to its “re-education through labor,” a system that police here use to cast people, without trial or recourse, into a system of labor camps infamous for abuse.
A government legal adviser has confirmed that the use of the program “will be tightly restricted, with lawmakers expected to approve its abolition this year,” according to an article published by state media Monday. If so, the move would be viewed as a step toward reform under the new leader of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping, whose installment in November was accompanied by rampant speculation about how much change, if any, he was likely to back.
Re-education through labor, established during Mao Zedong-era China in the 1950s, allows police to send Chinese to camps for up to four years. It’s been used to crack down on a wide range of behavior, including religious activity, political activism and drug use. Some official reports say there currently are about 60,000 Chinese toiling within the system, while others cite a figure of 160,000 as of 2008; either way, the real numbers could be much higher.
The government-controlled newspaper China Daily paraphrased Chen Jiping, the deputy director of the China Law Society, as saying that an official meeting earlier this month “committed to reducing the use of the controversial punishment this year until the National People’s Congress, the top legislature” – expected to meet in March – “can entirely scrap the system.”
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After the Jan. 7 conference, there were initial online postings by Chinese media reporting that Meng Jianzhu, the head of the party’s central political and legal commission, had said China would stop using the system. But those items were scrubbed from the Internet, and the state Xinhua news wire ran an item saying only that Beijing would “advance reforms” in the system, an oft-repeated position that’s not led to an overhaul.
The story Monday in China Daily seemed to suggest that the program will in fact be discontinued.
“The article confirms that the government intends to do away with RTL” or re-education through labor, Nicholas Bequelin, a senior Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, said in an email.
It’s not clear, though, whether another arrangement with similar features but under a different name may take its place.
The China Daily story didn’t fully answer that issue.
“Before it can be halted, police are urged to find alternative penalties for the people who would otherwise have received” re-education through labor, Chen said, according to the article. “Chen’s remarks suggest offenders are likely instead to get a court hearing, short-term detention or a fine, experts said.”
Hong Kong-based human rights researcher Joshua Rosenzweig said he expected that, “abolition is probably not what’s going to happen . . . something’s going to be put in place to replace it.”
Among the possibilities being debated, he said, is a system that targets far fewer people, includes a hearing process that resembles judicial proceedings and brings milder punishment.
“The big question for me and for many others,” Rosenzweig said, “is exactly what shape this new system will take when the final reforms are ultimately carried out.”