The mainland's new security tsar said yesterday the notorious practice of sending petty criminals and government critics to forced labour camps for up to four years without trial would soon be ended.
Meng Jianzhu, who became secretary of the Political and Legal Affairs Committee in November, said at a national law and order work conference that the "re-education through labour", or laojiao, system would be halted after the move was rubber-stamped by the National People's Congress in March.
The remarks were first reported by the bureau chief of the Legal Daily, the Justice Ministry's official mouthpiece, and were picked up by state media outlets.
An official who attended the event confirmed Meng's comments to the South China Morning Post. But state media sent mixed signals about the policy.
A Xinhua report on the conference said only that authorities had pledged to "reform" the system, and some analysts noted that Meng spoke of "halting" rather than "abolishing" the laojiao system.
At the same conference, party general secretary Xi Jinping called for continuous self-improvement of the justice system in response to public opinion, state media said.
The forced labour system was established under Mao Zedong in the 1950s as a way to contain "class enemies".
It grew into a convenient means of silencing any government critics, drawing international condemnation. A government researcher said late last year that there were some 60,000 people in labour camps.
Calls to scrap the system grew last year after the media exposed the plight of Ren Jianyu , 25, a former village official who spent 15 months in a Chongqing labour camp for reposting criticisms of the local government on his microblog.
"The time in the camp was exhausting and depressing," said Ren yesterday, recalling that he was assigned to make straws for medical companies. "The system gives no rights to citizens, but is a simple tool for officials to get rid of people like me."
Human rights lawyers and activists welcomed the new move, but some had reservations. Maya Wang, a researcher at the US group Human Rights Watch, said: "Although the announcement is certainly a positive step, it is still far from clear what lies in the future.
"Will the government make only cosmetic changes to the system, like giving it another name?" she asked.
"Anything short of abolition will only leave us with a more entrenched system and do nothing to end existing abuses."
Additional reporting by Verna Yu