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Will China end prison labor camps?

'Reeducation through labor' has long allowed China to control dissent while circumventing the legal system. Critics worry about a cosmetic change that may make it harder to monitor human rights violations.

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China appears poised to end an inglorious history of labor camps, and the practice of “reeducation through labor.”

This week, Beijing officially elliptically leaked that they may reform the decades-old system, which gives police and other officials power to detain people up to four years without charge or having to go through the legal system.

It appears that mounting dissatisfaction among citizens and lawyers with justice in China has brought about a potential moment in the Middle Kingdom, and new leaders in Beijing are giving it some attentionYet whether China will seize this moment and conduct real reform, close the camps, and stop incarcerating people without trial is unclear.

One concern, say longtime China justice watchers, is that Beijing may merely retool the policy on labor camps. That is, officials will create new legal measures that appear improved, but that change little – except to make it more difficult for monitors to claim or prove human rights violations.

China admits to a network of some 310 labor camps with 190,000 inmates who are forced to work, often in grueling conditions – sent there without due process or a judge.

Reeducation through labor has been used to control dissent and political prisoners. When the camps were started in the 1950s, they held “counter-revolutionaries” on ideological charges. But Beijing stopped that in the late '90s.

Today, the types of people who may end up in a camp for years are democracy organizers, upstart bloggers, underground church ministers, unhappy lawyers, members of the Falun Gong sect, Tibetan monks or ethnic Uighers with the temerity to protest, or those deemed too outspoken and thus threats to the “harmony” of China’s society.

Labor camps may have been necessary in the past, said Chinese Ministry of Justice Chief Meng Jianzhu Monday, but in today’s China, “conditions have changed.”

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