BEIJING (Reuters) - China will abolish its system of forced labor camps, the government said on Friday, a major victory for President Xi Jinping and a response to public outrage over a practice criticized as outdated and rife with human rights abuses.
The state Xinhua news agency said the decision was part of a package of political and economic reforms agreed at a conclave of the ruling Communist Party that ended earlier in the week.
Last week, Reuters had cited sources in the leadership as saying Xi had been blocked in efforts to dismantle the re-education through labor system, despite his personal dislike of the policy.
But Xi, who took charge of the party a year ago, appears to have overcome conservative opposition to the plan, one of the major components of the far-reaching changes that the government has said it will implement by 2020.
“Legal reform is one of the key points of this comprehensive reform,” Xi said in comments reported by Xinhua.
In another potentially significant legal reform, Xinhua said the party had decided to work toward an independent judiciary - courts would be “appropriately” separated from local government units and judges would be given more power and responsibility to make their own decisions. It did not say when the changes would be carried out.
Last month, a paper published on an official website managed by the Supreme People’s Court said China must rid its courts of corruption and stop officials interfering in decisions. Courts in the country almost never side with defendants.
The government’s decision to abolish labor camps follows the highly publicized sentences of Tang Hui, a 40-year-old woman sent to a labor camp in central Hunan province last year after demanding justice for her daughter who had been raped, and Ren Jianyu, 25, a village official sentenced in the southwestern city of Chongqing.
Nicholas Bequelin, senior Asia researcher at New York-based Human Rights Watch, called the announcement “a very positive step”.
“The system was standing in the way of any kind of meaningful legal reform. It was sort of a permanent handicap to the development of the criminal law system,” he said.
“It also reflects that Xi Jinping is somewhat curtailing the power of the security apparatus. He’s pushing the buttons and making these things happen.”
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 often used against political activists and followers of Falun Gong, the banned spiritual group.
Those detained under the policy were locked up in one of 350 labor camps throughout the country that can house about 160,000 inmates, according to Xinhua.
However, since Chinese police have not been sending people to camps this year, the number of those incarcerated is far less, said Pu Zhiqiang, a prominent human rights lawyer who has campaigned against the policy.
“As no new people have been going into the system, there probably are not that many people left in it,” he said.
The government also announced other legal reforms, including gradually reducing the number of crimes subject to the death penalty. It will “further improve the penalties for criminal acts and corrective legislation and improve the community correction system,” Xinhua said.
Li Fangping, a human rights lawyer who has lobbied to change the labor camp system, said authorities had no choice but to end the policy, given the wide criticism.
“The central government realized that if it maintained this system they would face greater and greater pressure from society,” Li said.
Domestic security head Meng Jianzhu said in early January that China would scrap the system this year.
“As the construction of a socialist democracy and the rule of law is being accelerated, the society’s calls for reform of the re-education through labor system have grown stronger and stronger,” Meng wrote in a February essay in Qiushi magazine, an influential party journal.
However, Corinna-Barbara Francis of Amnesty International said she was worried that China could “find alternative ways to punish the same types of people that they have been using” the re-education through labor system to punish.
Most of those who are incarcerated are drug addicts, prostitutes and members of Falun Gong, said rights activists.
Rights groups have said conditions in the labor camps are terrible and that detainees were frequently subject to “very hard labor” with no health and safety precautions.
Despite long-standing international criticism of the camps, many Chinese people are largely oblivious to them because many of those who are locked up are poor and on the fringes of society and their cases are not publicized.
But Tang, the woman whose daughter was raped, gained wide attention when reports of her incarceration were published in state media.
Additional reporting by Adam Rose, Michael Martina, Ben Blanchard and Hui Li; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan