Is the Chinese government serious about abolishing gulag-style camps?

In July and August last year, the sad and grim story of Tang Hui, 39, occupied the volatile top trends of China’s microblogging sites. Tang’s daughter was raped and forced into prostitution a few years; she was only 17 last year and a minor when the crime was committed.

Tang accused local police officials in Hunan province of falsifying evidence to allow the accused to be let off with lighter sentences. Instead of an investigation, it was she who was accused of “seriously disturbing the social order and exerting a negative impact on society” and sent to a dreaded labour camp (called ‘laojiao’ in Chinese) for 18 months.

The case outraged the public and prompted more than 700,000 posts on Sina Weibo, a popular micro-blogging service in China. Most messages expressed sympathy for her.

Tang’s quick release, a rarity, a few days later was probably but partly for sure a result of the online fury. What it also did was to reignite whether it was time for the all-powerful Communist Party of China (CPC) to reform even abolish the system – that functions on somewhat similar lines like the labour camps run by the Gulag in former Soviet Russia – once and for all.

Re-education-through-labor, or laojiao, is an administrative punishment imposed by the police.

The practice was adopted by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress in 1957.

The system allows police to detain people for up to four years without an open trial, leading experts to argue that it contradicts high-level laws, including China’s constitution.

According to the Bureau of Re-education through Labor under the Ministry of Justice, 160,000 people were imprisoned in 350 re-education labour centres nationwide as of the end of 2008.

Wang Gongyi, director of the Ministry of Justice’s research office, said in October that China has about 60,000 people serving laojiao sentences, most from six months to a year.

Earlier this month hopes were raised when Meng Jianzhu, secretary, Central Politics and Law Commission – that oversees Chinese laws and legal enforcement – indicated that a detailed critique of the system will be put up to the National People’s Congress, China’s Parliament, along with suggestions for reform , for approval later this year. Meng even indicated a possible abolition of the system.

Strangely while Meng’s speech given at an official meeting in Beijing was carried by the state media initially, his comments were removed within hours. A much watered-down version of the story continued to be carried. It triggered speculation that Meng had spoken out of turn and the government wasn’t actually serious about the reforming the system of labour camps.

But earlier this week, news again appeared across the state-controlled media about the system being restricted with new indications that it could be abolished later this year.

Chen Jiping, deputy director of the China Law Society, said the changes to laojiao, or re-education through labour, announced at the national political and legal work conference on Jan 7—where Meng had made his comments — were imminent.

“As part of discussions with legal experts from law societies nationwide about the major tasks, he said the closed-door conference had committed to reducing the use of the controversial punishment this year until the National People’s Congress, the top legislature, can entirely scrap the system. Ending the system requires the approval of the top legislature which originally endorsed laojiao in 1957, when it was proposed by the State Council,” state media reported earlier this week.

But this is not the first time that the Communist Party has toyed with the idea of reforming or getting rid of the system.

Proposed changes in the system was first listed in National People’s Congress’ annual legislative plan in 2005. But the draft law was put aside for two years because of disagreements.

According to experts, the laojiao system goes against several provisions of the Constitution, the Criminal Procedure Law, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a UN human rights treaty China signed in 1998.

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