China to reform controversial forced labor camps

BEIJING Mon Jan 7, 2013 6:01am EST

China's Communist Party chief Xi Jinping looks on during his meeting with U.N. General Assembly President Vuk Jeremic at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing December 27, 2012. REUTERS/Wang Zhao/Pool

China's Communist Party chief Xi Jinping looks on during his meeting with U.N. General Assembly President Vuk Jeremic at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing December 27, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Wang Zhao/Pool

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BEIJING (Reuters) - China will reform its controversial system of forced labor camps this year, state media reported on Monday, which would mark a first step toward legal reform promised by new Communist Party chief Xi Jinping.

China's "re-education through labor" system, in place since 1957, empowers police to sentence petty criminals to up to four years' confinement without going through the courts, a system that critics say undermines the rule of law and is used against political activists.

The announcement by state news agency Xinhua contradicted earlier media reports that cited domestic security head Meng Jianzhu as saying China would scrap the system. Those reports were removed from media websites without an explanation.

"The Chinese government will this year push the reform of its controversial re-education through labor system, according to a national political and legal work conference on Monday," Xinhua reported.

State broadcaster CCTV had said earlier on its microblog site, citing the party's newly appointed Political and Legal Affairs Committee head, Meng, as saying: "Use of the re-education through labor system will end this year, after approval from the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress."

The National People's Congress refers to China's largely rubberstamp parliament session held annually in March.

The Justice Ministry did not respond to a faxed inquiry by Reuters.

The labor camp system has come under fire from intellectuals, rights lawyers and activists, and even state media.

"If it can be abolished this year, I think it's an extremely important step toward rule of law," He Weifang, a law professor at Peking University, told Reuters.


China has 350 labor camps throughout the country, housing about 160,000 inmates, according to Xinhua, which cited the bureau of "re-education through labor" under the Ministry of Justice.

Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, a New York-based advocacy group, said there has been a precedent for a new leadership to take a symbolic step of reforming problematic systems.

"It has been my sense that Xi Jinping means business and that there would be a departure from the caretaking years of Hu and Wen," he said, referring to outgoing President Hu Jintao and outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao.

But Bequelin cautioned that reform, rather than the outright abolishment of the system, may only mean procedural improvements such as "a somewhat milder form of administrative detention".

He said a system could be introduced with some procedural protection, such as a hearing and the ability of a defendant to get legal counsel.

State media has taken up the case of people it believes have suffered miscarriages of justice under the system such as Ren Jianyu, a village official sentenced to a labor camp after he criticized the government.

Media also rallied to the defense of Tang Hui, a woman who was sent to a labor camp in August for demanding that the men who had raped her daughter be given harsher punishment. She was later released.

Whether China reforms the system hinges on the power of security agencies, which are responsible for reining in social unrest that threatens the party's efforts to maintain stability.

Meng, also public security minister, took over as head of the body that oversees law-and-order policy after November's party congress from Zhou Yongkang, who critics say had accumulated too much power.

(Writing by Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Nick Macfie and Robert Birsel)

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Comments (6)
beancube2101 wrote:
Are you kidding? It is a monopolized cheap labor source for getting rich for abusive local authorities. Those abusive local authorities are going to blow back big time this time.

Jan 07, 2013 7:30am EST  --  Report as abuse
americanguy wrote:
So are the wealthy and corporations in the US going to stop using illegals for low paid slave labor? Are they going to stop people in the US from working three people’s jobs since they laid off workers for more profits and shifted the work to other employees? Is the US going to stop work schedule tricks so overtime is not paid?
United States of Hypocrites.

Jan 07, 2013 7:37am EST  --  Report as abuse
ncshu2 wrote:
Xi is really treading on a dangerous line this time as the whole communist system itself hinges on the “security apparatus”, not just “whether China reforms the system” as the article stated. Without the abolishing the absolute power of the security apparatus, China risks Xi’s intended reform for a violent revolution. However, if the absolute power is taken away and the rule of law is established, without intimidation of the security apparatus people would speak out and the outcome for the communist rule would be very easy to predict. Xi probably would reduce the power of police a bit to avoid the social flash point. To completely overhaul the security of its rule? Noway.

Jan 07, 2013 9:06am EST  --  Report as abuse
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