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.”
So this week when Beijing started talking about ending “forced labor” – those words echoed loudly in China watch circles.
“This is a big measure if it really happens,” notes Nicolas Bequelin, a justice expert with Human Rights Watch based in Hong Kong, and author of many reports on conditions in China. “It is driven by the top and resisted by police and public security bureaus.”
What concerns Mr. Bequelin: “We may end up seeing a less overtly abusive system, one that has a different name and some small changes, but one that in the end makes the uprooting of abuse more difficult.”