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Rights activists cautious on China reforms
by Staff Writers
Washington Nov 15, 2013

China to abolish 're-education through labour' system: Xinhua
Beijing (AFP) Nov 15, 2013 - China is to abolish its controversial "re-education through labour" system, under which police panels can sentence offenders to years in camps without a trial, the official Xinhua news agency said Friday.

The move was "part of efforts to improve human rights and judicial practices" it said, and came in a detailed reform statement issued after a key meeting of the ruling Communist party that ended earlier this week.

The gathering, known as the Third Plenum, had also decided to reduce "step by step" the number of crimes subject to the death penalty, Xinhua added.

The deeply unpopular labour camp system, known as "laojiao", is largely used for petty offenders but is also blamed for widespread rights abuses by corrupt officials seeking to punish whistleblowers and those who try to complain about them to higher authorities.

Under the scheme, people can be sent for up to four years' "re-education" by a police panel, without a court appearance.

It was introduced in 1957 as a faster method of handling minor offences.

A 2009 United Nations report estimated that 190,000 Chinese were locked up in such facilities.

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

Pressure for change in the system has been building for years.

The national parliament has considered reforms to the system since at least 2005 but not passed related legislation.

In a high-profile case in August last year, Tang Hui, a mother from central Hunan province, was sentenced to a labour camp 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 freed after just over a week following a public outcry.

The next month a man in the southwestern metropolis of Chongqing -- who served two years in a labour camp for mocking an aggressive campaign that put thousands of people behind bars -- was ruled by a local panel to have been sentenced unlawfully.

After China's new leadership under Xi Jinping took charge of the Communist party in November last year, speculation about possible reform mounted.

State media said in January that the system would be abolished, but the reports were swiftly deleted and replaced with predictions of reform, with few details and no timetable.

Four pilot cities replaced re-education through labour with a system called "illegal behaviour rectification through education", the Beijing News said later, without explaining 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.

It was not immediately clear Friday how it would be replaced.

But analysts say the abolition of the system could face resistance as local governments profit from products made by camp prisoners and rely on the punishment to keep social order.

Human rights activists on Friday voiced caution over China's promises to loosen its one-child policy and shut down labor camps, fearing that abuses would still take place in different forms. Days after a key meeting, the Communist leadership announced that it would allow couples to have two children if one parent is an only child, widening the exemptions from a rule imposed in the late 1970s to control China's population. US Representative Chris Smith, who has campaigned for years against China's one-child policy, said that authorities would still have the power to forbid births by mothers who have two children or are unwed. "China is facing an implosion demographically and this is about as small of a step as they had to take," said Smith, a Republican from New Jersey and staunch opponent of abortion. "The coercive power of the state to dictate that you can have one, or maybe two, children remains unchanged. They need to end coercion and they need to end forced abortions," Smith told AFP. China took the decision as its working-age population begins to shrink for the first time in decades and as it copes with a gender imbalance, which threatens instability as society faces the prospect of tens of millions of men incapable of finding opposite-sex partners. Smith warned that "gullible Westerners" should not rush to praise China's steps, saying that previous pledges such as a ban on sex-selective abortion have not been carried out. The United States declined an official reaction to the promised reforms, with State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki saying only that US officials were "looking closely" at China's announcements. Chai Ling, a leader of the crushed Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests in 1989 who has since launched the group All Girls Allowed to campaign against the one-child policy, said that women in China were still forced to end pregnancies against their will. "This is a small step forward, but far from what needs to happen, which is completely abolishing the one-child policy," she told AFP. A 22,000-word document by China's rulers also announced the abolition of the deeply unpopular "re-education through labor" system. A United Nations report in 2009 estimated that China was holding some 190,000 people in such jails, where they can be sent without a court appearance. Former inmates say that a main target has been the banned Falungong spiritual movement, whose practitioners often face harsh physical and psychological pressure aimed at forcing them to renounce their beliefs. The Falungong organization said that China has been moving to shut down some labor camps but in some cases have simply moved practitioners to "drug rehabilitation centers" or other jails. "What this all means, at least for Falungong, is that the attempt to abolish the labor camp system is not a reversal in any way of the policy to arbitrarily detain and abuse Falungong practitioners around China," said Levi Browde, a spokesman for the New York-based Falun Dafa Information Center. Communist Party officials are "figuring out how to get rid of the labor camps because of all of the negative press that they've generated for the regime over the years while still achieving their goal of suppressing the Falungong." Corinna-Barbara Francis, an expert on the labor camps at Amnesty International, said that abolition would be "a big step in the right direction" but that authorities were looking for new ways to punish the same people. "There is the very real risk that the Chinese authorities will abolish one system of arbitrary detention only to expand the use of others," she said.


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