Among the many calls for political reform facing Xi Jinping, China’s new Communist party chief, none is louder than the demand for changes to the laojiao system.
Recent signs suggest that Pu and other critics of the decades-old system may emerge victorious. Last month, the Communist party said it would “push reform” of the labor camp system this year. And evidence also is mounting that authorities have significantly reduced the use of the camps in recent months.
“There is consensus at the top to abolish the system,” says Wang Gongyi, a recently retired senior justice department official who is China’s most prominent official labor camp expert. “The pressure has grown too big, and the police are the only ones that want to keep the camps.”
Demands to reform the judicial system have grown in recent years particularly after Hu Jintao, Xi’s predecessor, granted greater powers to the domestic security apparatus in an attempt to contain unrest in an increasingly complex society.
This was highlighted in 2009 with the 11-year jail sentence handed to Liu Xiaobo, the dissident who the following year won the Nobel Peace Prize, and by the nearly three-month detention without charge of Ai Weiwei, China’s most prominent contemporary artist.
But laojiao – which allows police to detain people for up to four years without trial – is the most potent symbol of the hollowing out of China’s legal institutions. The system was designed in the 1950s to silence political opponents, but has become a dumping ground for people who have run afoul of the security services.
Government figures from 2009 put the number of labor camp inmates at 160,000. But Wang says police stopped sending new prisoners a couple of months ago except for a minority accused of certain violent offenses.
“The total number of inmates was down to about 50,000 at the end of last year, and if the current trend continues, there will be just 20,000 left by the end of this year,” adds Wang.
These figures tally with observations of others familiar with individual camps. Liu Hua, a woman who was released late last year after two years in Masanjia, says no new inmates have arrived at the camp in northeast China since Sept. 26, 2012. Another activist who keeps in contact with a network of female camp inmates says she has observed the same pattern across the country.
Pu believes no inmates have arrived in camps in Chongqing since Bo Xilai, the former Communist party secretary of the western metropolis, was purged in April.
Abolishing laojiao would be a remarkable assertion of Xi’s powers over the bloated security machine. But any effort to do so could be helped by the fact that the top official for security issues no longer sits on the Politburo Standing Committee, a change that occurred when Xi was appointed the new party boss in November.