Government critics say they remain skeptical that the government will improve rights standards within the justice system, following an official announcement yesterday that labor camps would be overhauled.
State media quoted Meng Jianzhu, secretary of the Central Politics and Law Commission, saying that China would end the practice of sending people to labor camps, a policy which denies alleged offenders a trial.
Established by Mao Zedong during the 1950s and modeled on Josef Stalin’s notorious gulags in the former Soviet Union, the camps have been used to punish religious dissidents, social activists and petty thieves.
Meng was quoted as saying that a decision on the future of these camps would be finalized by the Standing Committee when the National People’s Congress holds its annual meeting in March.
The Bureau of Re-education Through Labor under the Ministry of Justice acknowledges the existence of 350 labor camps across China which held 160,000 people at the end of 2008, the latest period for which official figures were available.
Hu Jia, a well-known activist previously imprisoned for three and a half years, said that abolishing re-education through labor was a first step in a country with many other forms of inhumane punishment.
“Even without labor camps, there are still many ‘dark jails’ outside the law, or worse, [such as] to label someone psychotic so as to put them into a mental institution,” he said.
Wen Juchao, an outspoken Chinese journalist, said he feared that other inhumane methods might flourish in cases in which authorities look to punish without the complication of a trial.
On January 1, the Chinese government passed a new criminal code which allows police to detain without trial or informing family members anyone suspected of endangering national security or terrorism.
The end of re-education through labor would make little difference to religious freedom in China, even if camps have widely been used to house religious dissidents, said an underground Catholic bishop who gave only his first name, Peter.
His seminary classmate spent three years in a camp, he said, adding that other non-trial tactics against Christians were common – he has been subjected to forced study sessions and ‘sight-seeing’ tours by officials in which threats are often made as well as spending time behind bars.
“Government officials can still put us under house arrest in guesthouses which is also outside of the legal process,” said Bishop Peter.