China's labour camps on last legs

A concrete plan for ending a much-criticised programme that has sent hundreds of thousands to labour camps without trial could be unveiled by year end, a move that is set to improve China's image.

More details may be released when the National People's Congress, China's legislature, holds a scheduled meeting next month, reported the Beijing News on Sunday, citing an unnamed Beijing official in charge of labour camps.

The Communist Party had decided at a policy summit last week to do away with the re-education through labour (RTL) programme, which has drawn greater criticism in recent years for being used increasingly as an excuse to lock up petitioners or dissidents.

Public security officials can send people to labour camps without the due process of law.

"These are not legal. They make China a police state," Beijing-based lawyer Pu Zhiqiang told The Straits Times.

In particular, the cases of Chongqing resident Ren Jianyu and Hunan native Tang Hui, both of whom were sent for re-education through labour (laojiao) on dubious grounds, have attracted public sympathy and focused attention in and outside China on the ills of the scheme.

Mr Ren was locked up for 15 months and released only last November for posting online criticism of officials including the then Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai; Ms Tang spent nine days in a labour camp last year for her persistent petitioning of officials to seek justice for the rape of her young daughter.

Started in 1957 to deal with ideological foes of the Communist state, the programme had 60,000 inmates as of last year, according to legal researcher Wang Gongyi. At its peak, there were more than 300,000 people.

There has been talk of ending the much-reviled system since late last year. On Jan 7, Mr Meng Jianzhu, China's top party official in charge of political and legal affairs, said China may end the RTL system this year.

Some provinces, such as Guangdong in the south, stopped sending people to RTL camps earlier this year.

The labour camps, numbering about 300, are unlikely to disappear but may be turned into prisons or drug rehabilitation centres, with many already being used to house drug addicts, say observers.

They say the move to end the nearly 60-year-old RTL system helps improve the image of China somewhat and burnishes the reformist sheen of the new Chinese leadership.

Mr Pu said abolishing it was an easy decision for China leaders Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang.

"For Xi and Li, there's no downside at all. But for the public security officials, it may mean more inconvenience," he said.

Previously these officials could send someone to a labour camp in as little as a day, without the need to go through a court of law, noted Mr Pu, who is helping some laojiao detainees sue the authorities for wrongful detainment.

They could previously send someone to labour camps for up to four years. This was changed in 2005 to at most two years.

Observers say other forms of arbitrary detention should be reviewed too, including "custody and education" (shourong jiaoyu), targeted at sex workers and their clients. Under this, offenders can be put to labour in camps for six months to two years.

"It's also illegal and should be abolished," said Beijing lawyer Hao Jinsong. "They say 'we are educating you' but in reality they are limiting your freedom and punishing you."

Still, observers say the abolition of laojiao should be celebrated. "These wicked practices have brought disaster to millions. By getting rid of even one of them, fewer people will suffer persecution," said Mr Hao.

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.