China’s hugely controversial “re-education” labour camps are set to be abolished this year, state media Monday quoted a senior legal official as saying.
It is another signal that the widely criticised system — where people can be sentenced to up to four years’ “re-education” by a police panel, without an open trial — is coming to an end.
The comments come after the Communist Party’s new leader Xi Jinping said the party recognised as a “pressing problem” that it was “out of touch with the people”.
About 60,000 people are detained in the camps, officials say, most of whom serve from six months to a year.
Opponents say the camps are used to silence government critics and would-be petitioners who seek to bring their complaints against officials to higher authorities.
Earlier this month reports emerged briefly that the system — known as laojiao — would be abolished. But they were swiftly deleted and replaced with predictions of reforms, with few details and no timetable.
Chen Jiping, deputy director of the China Law Society, was quoted by the China Daily as saying that a key meeting had agreed tightly to limit use of the system until it could be scrapped by China’s rubber-stamp parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC).
It added in reported speech that he described laojiao as having “made its contribution at a time when the Communist Party of China was consolidating the republic and rectifying social order, but now China has well-established legal systems”.
“Ending the system requires the approval of the top legislature which originally endorsed laojiao in 1957,” the paper said. The annual session of the NPC is due to be held in March.
Currently, people sentenced under the laojiao system are forced to perform manual labour such as farm or factory work, but do not receive a criminal conviction.
Authorities will need to replace it with alternative punishments for those accused of petty offences, the paper added.
“Chen’s remarks suggest offenders are likely instead to get a court hearing, short-term detention or a fine,” the newspaper said, citing “experts”.
The scheme has faced growing criticism for being open to abuse and public anger has erupted over sentences deemed too harsh.
In a case which shocked the nation, Tang Hui, a mother whose 11-year-old daughter was abducted, raped and forced into prostitution, was sentenced to 18 months of laojiao after she demanded death penalties for seven men convicted in the case.
The 40-year-old also accused two police officers in her home city of Yongzhou, in the central province of Hunan, of being complicit in the crime. She was released within a week following public outrage.
Party officials visited Tang on Friday as part of an investigation into the decision to punish her. She is claiming compensation.
Earlier this month the official microblog of the CCTV state news channel quoted Meng Jianzhu, a member of the powerful 25-strong Politburo who oversees politics and legal affairs, as saying that China would stop using the system.
The reports were quickly removed, but the following day the China Daily said the government “will push reforms”.
At the time news of the changes was widely welcomed on China’s hugely popular microblogging sites.