The People’s Republic of China has announced that it may cease its use of forced labour camps. The policy of “re-education through labour” has been a system of punishment in China since Mao Zedong introduced it in 1957. Since its inception millions have been sent to labour camps as a means to change their behaviour. Even nowadays, it is estimated that there are 150, 000 individuals across 350 different facilities.
It is used to punish drug users, prostitutes and political and religious dissidents. The police, and not the courts, are the ones who decide whether someone should be sent to forced labour camps. Within this system there are very few rights for the person the police have claimed has done wrong. As Human Rights Watch points out; there is no right to a trial, no right to face witnesses, no independent judge and no judicial review. People can be sent for up to four years in a forced labour camp.
Human Rights Watch emphasises the unaccountable power this gives to the police and how it is easily open to abuse:
“In practice, the system has frequently been abused by the police to punish human rights defenders, petitioners seeking redress for abuses, and political dissidents.”
A recent example of “re-education through labour” has particularly shocked the Chinese public and contributed to the backlash against it. In 2012, a woman was imprisoned for confronting the government over lenient sentences it had handed to the men who had raped and prostituted her daughter. Her crime was petitioning the government over the issue. Only after public outrage her 18-month sentence was cut short.
On Monday, the country’s head of internal security, Meng Jianzhu, stated that the government would end the use of forced labor.
Human rights campaigners are celebrating the government’s announcement that the justice system will “stop using” re-education through labour. However, a lot is unknown about whether the system will be dropped entirely or simply amended. The desire is that the amendment will be met by true change. Human Rights Watch comments,
“It is therefore unclear, after the government “stops using” the system, whether it will be reformed, abolished, or replaced by another administrative detention system with a different name.”
Roseann Rife, Amnesty International Head of East Asia has said:
“If these reports are true, clearly this is a step in the right direction, but the proposed reforms are unclear and need to be spelled out in detail and subject to open public debate.
“The danger is the authorities’ rhetoric creates a veneer of reform without the reality changing for the hundreds of thousands of people detained in such facilities nor is it clear that any new system will meet international standards.”