China’s system of imprisoning people in labour camps without trial is problematic, and the government is working on reforms, a senior judicial official said on Tuesday.
Jiang Wei, the head of a government committee on judicial reform, said the government has found widespread agreement among legal scholars and lawmakers on the need to reform the labour camp detention system, and an overhaul is being devised based on that consensus.
Jiang’s comments were the latest indication by the government that after much debate it is ready to revise the system – known as “re-education through labour” – that critics say ignores civil rights and is prone to abuse.
Introduced in the 1950s, the system was originally meant for opponents of the communist regime. Today, the system authorises police to jail people for three years without trial; a fourth year can be added for bad behaviour. While often used for drug abusers, prostitutes and others accused of minor offences, it has also been used to silence government critics and punish practitioners of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement.
Jiang, speaking at a news conference, said that the system “plays an important role in maintaining social order”, suggesting that the government is unwilling to consider getting rid of it. But, he said, Chinese society had “reached a consensus on the need to reform the re-education through labour system”.
Public criticism over the system has been rising, most recently in August after a woman in Hunan province was sentenced to 18 months in a labour camp because she demanded tougher penalties for the seven men convicted of abducting, raping and prostituting her 11-year-old daughter.
Tang Hui, the crusading mother who petitioned courts and local government officials, was released within a week following an outcry from intellectuals, bloggers and even state media.
The state-run Global Times newspaper delivered an unusually frank critique of Tang’s treatment and China’s legal system.
“It’s worth noting that China’s petition and labour re-education system both have loopholes, and can easily lead to controversies,” it said.
Jiang was also pressed for information about the poet Liu Xia, wife of jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. She has been under house arrest in her Beijing home for nearly two years, apparently without legal charge. Her plight has drawn protests from the US and other governments.
Jiang responded that he had “no information to report”, and suggested journalists could address questions to the “relevant government departments” but declined to clarify which agency he was referring to.