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Legal reforms a 'litmus test' of Xi Jinping's commitment to change

Analysts will be watching to see if vow to scrap labour-camp system is kept, saying it will prove whether new leader is serious about change

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 January, 2013, 5:46am

The Communist Party's proposed reforms to the legal system, particularly one to "halt" the controversial re-education through labour system, will prove a major litmus test of new leader Xi Jinping's oft-repeated commitment to transparency and the rule of law, analysts say.

And the latest development is just a first step, they added.

Security tsar Meng Jianzhu told a national law-and-order work conference on Monday that the government would proceed with reforms in four areas this year: the re-education through labour system; the petitions system; the use of judicial power; and the household registration system.

Teng Biao , a Beijing-based human-rights lawyer, said they were the areas "where abuse of human rights and violation of social justice by law enforcement officers is most widespread".

Gu Su , a law professor and political affairs analyst at Nanjing University, said: "These are most controversial areas, which have been the main sources of public dissatisfaction for years."

Mo Shaoping , another Beijing-based human-rights lawyer, said scrapping the re-education through labour system would be a significant development because it "violated the basic principles of China's constitutional law and human rights".

Xi has promised to strengthen the mainland's legal system since his elevation to party general secretary in November, saying the government should improve the public credibility of legal affairs, "striving to ensure that the public feels that justice is served in every legal case".

But analysts wonder whether such promises are empty or herald sweeping changes.

Gu said the latest development suggested the new leadership's determination to tackle the most difficult and most controversial issues. He added that reform of the four areas had been stalled for a long time due to strong resistance from police and vested interest groups.

But Teng did not see the reform pledge as signalling anything about the new leadership's political direction, saying it was just a response to sustained pressure from the public at home and concern groups abroad.

Mo said: "These laws and regulations have been out of date for a long time and have received widespread criticism. And the government should have reformed or scrapped them outright in the first place."

In a message to the conference, Xi urged judicial and security officials to "firmly oppose" injustice in law enforcement and judicial corruption to "win public trust".

The labour-camp system allows police to sentence people suspected of minor offences such as petty theft or prostitution, as well as petitioners and others who create a political nuisance for the authorities, to up to four years of forced labour without judicial review. There are 350 labour camps on the mainland, housing about 160,000 inmates.

Gu said hoped-for reform hinged on the power of the security agencies, which are responsible for reining in social unrest.

Mo said it was not a "big deal" to scrap the "most inhuman laws".

The re-education through labour system came under fire last summer after it was revealed that a woman named Tang Hui had been sentenced to 11/2 years in a labour camp for "disturbing social order" by demanding tougher punishment of seven men who raped her daughter and forced her into prostitution.

However, the state media's coverage of the proposed reform leaves room for scepticism. Some reports saying the system would end within the year were taken down shortly after they appeared online. Not all reappeared.

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