Will China end prison labor camps?

'Reeducation through labor' has long allowed China to control dissent while circumventing the legal system. Critics worry about a cosmetic change that may make it harder to monitor human rights violations.

China appears poised to end an inglorious history of labor camps, and the practice of “reeducation through labor.”

This week, Beijing officially elliptically leaked that they may reform the decades-old system, which gives police and other officials power to detain people up to four years without charge or having to go through the legal system.

It appears that mounting dissatisfaction among citizens and lawyers with justice in China has brought about a potential moment in the Middle Kingdom, and new leaders in Beijing are giving it some attentionYet whether China will seize this moment and conduct real reform, close the camps, and stop incarcerating people without trial is unclear.

One concern, say longtime China justice watchers, is that Beijing may merely retool the policy on labor camps. That is, officials will create new legal measures that appear improved, but that change little – except to make it more difficult for monitors to claim or prove human rights violations.

China admits to a network of some 310 labor camps with 190,000 inmates who are forced to work, often in grueling conditions – sent there without due process or a judge.

Reeducation through labor has been used to control dissent and political prisoners. When the camps were started in the 1950s, they held “counter-revolutionaries” on ideological charges. But Beijing stopped that in the late '90s.

Today, the types of people who may end up in a camp for years are democracy organizers, upstart bloggers, underground church ministers, unhappy lawyers, members of the Falun Gong sect, Tibetan monks or ethnic Uighers with the temerity to protest, or those deemed too outspoken and thus threats to the “harmony” of China’s society.

Labor camps may have been necessary in the past, said Chinese Ministry of Justice Chief Meng Jianzhu Monday, but in today’s China, “conditions have changed.”

So this week when Beijing started talking about ending “forced labor” – those words echoed loudly in China watch circles. 

“This is a big measure if it really happens,” notes Nicolas Bequelin, a justice expert with Human Rights Watch based in Hong Kong, and author of many reports on conditions in China. “It is driven by the top and resisted by police and public security bureaus.”

What concerns Mr. Bequelin: “We may end up seeing a less overtly abusive system, one that has a different name and some small changes, but one that in the end makes the uprooting of abuse more difficult.”

To be sure, compared with the old Soviet Siberian wasteland labor camps chronicled by Alexander Solzhenitzyn, where inmates died in the snows by the thousands, Chinese camps are a kind of “Gulag-lite.” But they are also plenty grim. Torture is sanctioned, medical treatment withheld, and grueling work enforced. Beatings and other inhumane conditions are overseen by often-corrupt police officials.

“Chinese authorities will need to replace “reeducation by labor” with something,” says Joshua Rosenzweig, a Hong Kong-based expert formerly with the Dui Hua group. “But what will it be? That is the question.”

The cornerstone of any justice system is that those accused by police must go to court where evidence is produced. In the case of the forced labor camps in China, police arrest and act as judge and jury without a trial. Currently, the camps are inspected by the Ministry of Justice, which happens to be the same ministry that operates them. 

Will Chinese police give up some of their current power?

Can Chinese authorities start moving away from a long-held obsession with “stability” – and begin to acknowledge individual rights as more significant?

What concerns analysts like Mr. Rosenzweig is that there has not yet been a fundamental change of heart or spirit in Beijing behind the coming change.

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