BEIJING — 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.”
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.