Among a raft of reforms China announced today was the abolition of its “education-through-labor” camps, known as laojiao. The measure, alongside others like reducing the use of the death penalty, responds to growing outrage in China at the often arbitrary and harsh criminal-justice system.
Officials first began promising reforms to the labor camp system last October, after some 30 million bloggers protested the imprisonment of a woman whose 11-year-old daughter had been raped and forced into prostitution; the mother was locked up for raising a stink about policemen who had shielded her daughter’s attackers. Accounts of life in the labor camps include being fed excrement, getting beaten, receiving electric shocks, and countless other dehumanizing measures.
Laojiao is one of the most enduring signs of China’s revolutionary origins. It began in the 1950s in emulation of the Soviet gulags as a way to bring wayward party leaders and regular citizens to heel. (The father of Xi Jinping, China’s current president, was fired as vice premier and held in a labor camp for seven years during the Cultural Revolution.) Today, the camps are used ostensibly as a way to “correct” the behavior of petty criminals through work while also avoiding clogging up the court system; but they are often used to imprison dissidents, Falun Gong petitioners, and citizens airing their grievances against local governments. According to government statistics, there were about 160,000 people held in the camps as of the end of 2008; others have said the figure ranges between 500,000 and 2 million (pdf, p. 18).