Imprisoning people for months and even years without trial clearly goes against the grain of the rule of law that the mainland is striving to attain. When the detention is in the name of "re-education", the practice is as much damaging as wrong. Reform of the network of labour camps known as laojiao is being undertaken cautiously, with pilot schemes in four cities searching for a way forward. But experimenting with a mind to revamping is not the right approach. If a legal system based on due process of law is to be built, re-education through labour has to be abolished.
There have been such calls for at least eight years and pledges for reform made, but the excruciatingly slow progress points to a lack of will for change. Efforts were given fresh impetus in August, though, when a woman who had repeatedly petitioned authorities over her 11-year-old daughter's kidnapping, rape and forced prostitution was sent to a labour camp for 18 months for "disturbing social order and exerting a negative impact on society". Tang Hui complained that the men involved had been treated too leniently. She won support from lawyers, academics, microbloggers and the media and, in the ensuing storm of outrage, was released.
Internet polls on the labour camp system have since shown an overwhelming desire for it to be abolished. Tang's case makes plain why. It empowers police to lock away petty offenders for up to four years without charge, trial or the possibility of legal defence or appeal. Those accused are made to work long hours in isolated conditions with little food and cannot be visited by family or friends. While meant for minor infringements, the camps are also used to silence government critics and perceived troublemakers.
A lack of transparency means that numbers are unclear. A recent UNHCR report said that in 2009, about 190,000 people were being held in 320 camps. An estimated 1.6 million people convicted by courts are held in the formal prison system. Whether re-education through labour works is a matter of opinion. What is unequivocal, though, is that the practice is incompatible with the constitution and contravenes authorities' commitment to strengthen the rule of law.
Re-education camps were set up in 1957 to suppress dissent, and some in authority still see this as their purpose. China has moved on from those days, though, and is in dire need of legal and political reform. The system undermines the law and harms social justice; it should be terminated.