Q&A: China's 're-education through labour' camps

A photo taken on April 29, 2013 through a car window shows the Zhuzhou Baimalong Labour Camp in Hunan province.

BEIJING - China will abolish its controversial "re-education through labour" system, a Communist Party document issued by state media said Friday, among a raft of pledges.

Q. What is the re-education through labour system?

A. The system, introduced in 1957 to handle minor offenders, allows police panels to sentence offenders to up to four years in work camps without a trial. It is known as "laojiao", an abbreviation of the Chinese words for "labour" and "education".

Many inmates are drug offenders and petty criminals. But opponents say the camps are also used to silence government critics and would-be petitioners who seek to bring their complaints against officials to higher-level authorities.

Life in the camps can vary widely, but many prisoners face extremely long work days manufacturing goods or doing agricultural work, the Dui Hua Foundation, a US-based rights group, said in a report.

The UN estimated in 2009 that the system held 190,000 people.

Q: Why did critics call for the camps to be abolished?

A: The system has faced criticism for being open to abuse and public anger has previously erupted over sentences deemed too harsh, with pressure for reform building for years.

Citizens were outraged in August last year when Tang Hui, a mother from central Hunan province, was sentenced for petitioning repeatedly after her 11-year-old daughter was kidnapped and forced to work as a prostitute.

Tang had sought accountability for police officers that she said aided the culprits. She was released after just over a week and in July this year won a lawsuit for 2,941 yuan (US$483) in state compensation for that time.

Q: What might happen next?

A: No details were presented on Friday about what might replace re-education through labour, or how current prisoners would be handled.

Four pilot cities replaced re-education through labour with a system called "illegal behaviour rectification through education", local media said early this year, but did not explain the differences between the two systems.

Premier Li Keqiang said at a major gathering of the national parliament in March that details might be unveiled by year's end.

Analysts have said local governments may resist shutting the labour camps because they benefit from the products made by prisoners and rely on the punishment to keep social order.

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