Questions over what replaces 're-education through labour'
The abolition of the notorious "re-education through labour", or laojiao, system announced on Friday has been widely hailed as a significant step forward in human-rights protection on the mainland, but rights advocates and legal experts remain sceptical over the new correctional system that is expected to replace it.
The third plenum communiqué that announced the scrapping of laojiao said the party would "improve the law on the punishment and correction of criminal acts" and "the correctional system in communities" - but stopped short of elaborating.
Nicholas Bequelin, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said that in the absence of details on the correctional regime, many were in the dark as to what can be expected of this new system.
"The problem is whether the new system will entrench arbitrary detention. If China passes some new law that is not called laojiao but is called 'the correction of illegal behaviour' but essentially allows the same thing, the arbitrary deprivation of liberties, then it might prove even more difficult to get rid of."
Since top security chief Meng Jianzhu announced in January that the re-education through labour system would be halted this year, legal experts have voiced concern over how the authorities would handle petty criminals and government critics who would have previously been sent to labour camps.
They fear that amid the government's escalation of its "stability maintenance" drive, arbitrary detentions without court approval will still be used to lock up perceived troublemakers.
Re-education through labour, originally meant for the purging of "class enemies" in the 1950s, gave police the unilateral power to send people accused of relatively minor offences - from prostitution to participating in religious cults or criticising the government - to labour camps for up to four years, without trial.
"What we don't want is for China to establish a system of 're-education through labour lite' called the rectification of illegal behaviour, which is in fact the same as re-education through labour," Bequelin said.
Joshua Rosenzweig, a human-rights researcher at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the public deserved an opportunity to scrutinise the proposed new system before any law is passed.
Rosenzweig said there remained many questions as to whether laojiao would be replaced by one or more systems, what the "correction of illegal behaviour" will entail, and how the community correctional system - currently rarely used - will work.
"Unless they can answer these questions, there will still be a lot of doubts and scepticism over the possibilities that they might be putting old wine in [a new] bottle," he said.
Legal experts fear the authorities could still subject perceived troublemakers to other forms of arbitrary detention such as black jails, the so-called legal education centres or mental asylums.
"The key is, outside laojiao, many forms of extrajudicial detention exist and are being widely used, so the progress on [the protection of] personal rights is still limited," said legal scholar and activist Teng Biao , who himself has been "disappeared" by security police several times, once for 70 days.
Rights lawyer Li Fangping said he worried that the abolition of re-education through labour "will be in name only" because the deprivation of personal freedom remained an essential tool in the government's drive to silence critics.
Ye Jinghuan, a petitioner who was sent to a labour camp for 21 months, noted that the authorities were still using criminal and administrative detentions to lock up activists on charges of illegal assembly or public disturbance, but said these were better than re-education through labour.
"Laojiao was not just an issue of the deprivation of freedom, it was just exceedingly cruel," she said. "Now, this fear has been removed."