To call re-education through labour an affront to the rule of law is an understatement. It is a grotesque perversion of the rule of law, to the point of being used by police to lock up people even after they have been found innocent by the courts. Many years of pressure from within and outside the country for abolition of the labour camps have not prevented ever-more egregious abuses against petty criminals, government critics and, more recently, petitioners with grievances. Unusual reports of scandals in the state media recently did raise hopes for reform. But nothing prepared anyone for the news from a national law and order work conference that the system will soon be halted, 55 years after it was established under Mao Zedong .
This is a remarkable turn of events, coming less than two months after Xi Jinping became party chief with pledges to uphold the rule of law and rein in abuses of power. It has, understandably, given rise to cautious optimism that talk of reforms will have meaningful results. Indeed, the authorised report of the conference carried by Xinhua flagged reform measures in four areas - labour camps, the petitioning system, the powers of the judiciary and the hukou, or household registration law, which denies social rights to rural migrants. The latter is the biggest obstacle to modernisation in the greatest urban migration the world has ever seen. Meng Jianzhu , the mainland's new security tsar, told the conference the labour-camp system would be halted after formal approval by the National People's Congress in March.
Xi told the conference he wanted to promote justice and called for self-improvement of the justice system in response to public opinion. This sends a strong message that the country's new leadership is anxious to promote the rule of law.
City or even county officials can send people to forced labour camps for up to four years without trial. Human rights activists say the camps have been used to silence colleagues and political dissenters.
The end of the system, not just reform, will be welcome - if it happens. It will be a political test for Xi, in the face of self-interest at the local level. Analysts noted that Meng used the world "halt", not "abolish". A Xinhua report said only that the authorities had pledged to reform the system. Xi has said purging official corruption is a top priority of his rule. Lawlessness among law enforcers is a good place to start.