A White Paper issued by Beijing this week promising reforms to China's judicial system, including the practice of "re-education through labor," will have little impact in the absence of judicial independence, rights lawyers said this week.
Speaking at the launch of the policy document, Jiang Wei, a senior judicial official in Beijing, told reporters that the government is working on plans to reform the "laojiao," or re-education through labor — RTL — system, citing "loopholes."
However, Jiang stopped short of attacking the RTL system itself, under which citizens can be detained for up to three years without the need for a trial, saying it had had a positive effect on social stability, official media reported on Tuesday.
"The authorities have reached a consensus on the necessity of the reforms and have been conducting research," Jiang was quoted as saying by Xinhua news agency, but gave no timetable for the implementation of reforms.
Not far enough
Top Chinese lawyers, particularly those with experience of human rights and public interest cases, have repeatedly called for RTL to be abolished outright, saying it is unconstitutional.
Many say the white paper, which also promises greater respect for the rights of lawyers to visit clients and access evidence, doesn't go nearly far enough.
"China's legal profession had high hopes [for this white paper]," said Beijing-based rights lawyer Li Fangping. "But when the white paper was released, everyone was very disappointed."
Li welcomed the emphasis on protection for human rights and social justice in the policy document, which comes ahead of a once-in-a-decade leadership transition in the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
But he said no real change looked likely.
"It also emphasizes China's national situation, which effectively means that Party and government policy won't change," he said.
"If there is no true judicial independence, then these trifling reforms aren't going to have much effect."
China has an urgent and pressing need to find an alternative to its labor camp system, lawyers said.
While often used for drug abusers, prostitutes and others accused of minor offenses, the labor camps have also been used to silence people regarded as troublemakers by the government.
"Right now, the need to find some suitable, and legal, measures to replace the RTL system is extremely urgent," said top Chinese rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, who has recently represented a number of appeals against RTL cases in the southwestern city of Chongqing.
Hangzhou-based rights lawyer Wang Cheng, who recently signed an open letter calling for an end to RTL, arguing that the rules governing the practice clash with the constitution and Chinese criminal and legal codes.
"They are [also] in conflict with China's signing of the United Nations Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and ... they are already greatly at odds with the original aims of the original administrative guidelines," Wang said.
"They were originally aimed at dealing with counterrevolutionaries, rightists, and people who refused to work," he said. "That is why I, and the other signatories, are calling for the abolition [of RTL]."
Beijing University of Science and Technology professor Hu Xingdou, who has campaigned since 2003 for an end to the use of labor camps for "re-education," said that the government had now admitted publicly for the first time that there were problems with the system, bringing the issue into the public eye.
"[Re-education through labor] actually exacerbates and polarizes existing divisions in our society," Hu said. "I think that if the Communist Party wants implement the rule of law, they should start by abolishing the RTL system."
"I think that this would be a tipping point away from the rule of man, and towards the rule of law," he said.
Tuesday's white paper said that improving human rights protection was "an important goal." It said "effective measures" were being taken to deter and prohibit the obtainment of confessions through torture, better protect the rights of criminal suspects and defendants, and ensure attorneys' rights to exercise their duties.
Measures are also being taken to "strictly control and prudently apply" the death penalty, Xinhua reported.
Reported by Hai Nan for RFA's Cantonese service and by Shi Shan for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.