China to reform system of forced labour camps


China will this year reform its hated “re-education through labour” system that allows police to jail political dissidents or offenders for minor crimes for up to four years without going through the courts.

The decision is seen as a cautiously optimistic sign that the country’s new leadership under Xi Jinping is prepared to reform. Critics say the “laojiao” system of labour camps, established in the mid-1950s to deal with dissidents, is a wide-scale breach of human rights rules and is open to abuse by local police officials.

Reform of the system has been flagged for some time but yesterday was the first time outright abolition was flagged by the ruling Communist Party, and attention now turns to what might replace the system.

Initial reports quoted the head of domestic security, Meng Jianzhu, telling a meeting of officials from all over the country that the party had decided it would stop the practice of sending people to labour camps within the year.

According to a number of Chinese media outlets, Mr Meng said the system was outdated and the country’s parliament, the National People’s Congress, would debate getting rid of it.

Later reports on the Xinhua news agency focused more on reform of the system, steering clear of mention of its demise.

Steve Tsang of the China Policy Research Institute at the University of Nottingham said the reform was significant but it needed to be seen if the new government of Xi Jinping was prepared to follow through with abolishing the system.

“Why the confusion? Why has the initial news release been removed from the net so quickly? It would suggest that there are strong voices in the top leadership that would like to put an end to re-education through labour but even stronger reservations remain. Where Mr Xi stands on this will indicate whether he is in reality closer to the hardliners or the reformers,” said Prof Tsang.

Estimates of the numbers held in the camps range from 160,000 to 310,000 people, in about 350 centres.