China has indicated that it will stop handing down sentences to its controversial labor camps, which allow detention without trial for up to four years. According to Chinese media, some 160,000 prisoners were held in "re-education centers" at the end of 2008.
Critics of the system greeted the announcement — which was slim on details — with cautious optimism.
Pressure to change the system has been mounting after a number of high-profile cases, including that of Ren Jianyu, who had been a young village official.
He became an outspoken critic of labor camps after spending 15 months in one. He was sent there by police, at the age of 24, without trial or even seeing a lawyer. His crime? Criticizing the local government in Chongqing by retweeting or forwarding 100 messages containing "negative information."
"By chance I had made a T-shirt saying, 'Give me liberty or give me death.' [The authorities] used this clothing as proof I was inciting subversion of the government," Ren says. "I kept thinking, why? What makes me different from the millions of other Internet users? They may have written tens of thousands of tweets and are fine, while I only sent 100."
He spent more than a year coiling wire in a labor camp — known as "re-education through labor." His fellow prisoners also had fallen foul of the government: thieves, gamblers, petitioners with grievances against officials, those with political views like his.
He had a mixed reaction to Monday's news that the use of re-education through labor will be reformed. China began using the system in 1957.
"When I first saw the news, I was very happy. At least it's a small step toward reform. It shows a trend in the top leadership," he says. "But the road is still very long."
A propaganda film about one labor camp shows blue-suited inmates bent over their work making electrical wiring. The inmates make computer cables and headphones for MP3 players.
Ren says he worked for about 10 hours a day, during which he was not allowed to speak to fellow inmates. He seldom had a day off.
Highly publicized cases like his have led to a groundswell of criticism of the system, according to Josh Rosenzweig, a researcher at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
"Particularly over the past year, the writing has been on the wall. The re-education-through-labor system is not only in violation of Chinese constitution, it's in violation of Chinese law, and this has been well-known and discussed for many years," he says.
But even the way in which the news was released has raised questions.
Earlier Monday, official microblogs reported that China would end the re-education-through-labor system, but offered no details on how or what would happen to those already being held in labor camps. But even that limited information was then deleted from the Internet, and not repeated on the evening news.
Lawyer Pu Zhiqiang has been campaigning for this moment. He says it's too early to celebrate.
"I have been looking forward to this day, so I am very happy. But I'm not very satisfied," he says. "It's not enough to just stop using re-education through labor. It should be abolished. And it depends on what method will be used to deal with the problem."
So what does this news say about China's new leaders? Optimists say it's come earlier than expected and could show new focus on rule-of-law issues.
Pessimists point to continuing arbitrary detentions in other venues — as well as the lack of clarity that is, apparently, intentional.
The authoritative Xinhua news agency had this to say: "No further information on the reform was available for now."
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