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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.”
To be sure, compared with the old Soviet Siberian wasteland labor camps chronicled by Alexander Solzhenitzyn, where inmates died in the snows by the thousands, Chinese camps are a kind of “Gulag-lite.” But they are also plenty grim. Torture is sanctioned, medical treatment withheld, and grueling work enforced. Beatings and other inhumane conditions are overseen by often-corrupt police officials.
“Chinese authorities will need to replace “reeducation by labor” with something,” says Joshua Rosenzweig, a Hong Kong-based expert formerly with the Dui Hua group. “But what will it be? That is the question.”
The cornerstone of any justice system is that those accused by police must go to court where evidence is produced. In the case of the forced labor camps in China, police arrest and act as judge and jury without a trial. Currently, the camps are inspected by the Ministry of Justice, which happens to be the same ministry that operates them.
Will Chinese police give up some of their current power?
Can Chinese authorities start moving away from a long-held obsession with “stability” – and begin to acknowledge individual rights as more significant?
What concerns analysts like Mr. Rosenzweig is that there has not yet been a fundamental change of heart or spirit in Beijing behind the coming change.