Chinese authorities are quietly reforming the country's controversial "re-education through labor" system amid growing calls for public information on the process, activists said on Thursday.
The government is turning many of the existing facilities into drug rehabilitation units, the U.S.-based Duihua Foundation said in an article on its website this week.
"[Re-education through labor] RTL facilities in ... Liaoning, Jiangsu, Jilin, and Hunan ... have been quietly taking formal steps to transition into compulsory drug treatment centers," the group quoted local media reports as saying.
"All of those sent for non-drug-related offenses to one Liaoning RTL facility were released earlier this month—regardless of their time left to serve," it quoted a petitioner released from the facility as saying.
Meanwhile, lawyers have said they have seen few RTL cases this year, although many said it was still unclear exactly what the reforms would mean.
Beijing-based rights lawyer Li Fangping said the authorities appeared to be carrying out the reforms under a veil of secrecy.
"It's still not clear whether this is a unified directive from the top, or what," Li said on Thursday. "It is all happening in a murky way."
"I have already made a public information request to the government, but they either refuse on the grounds that this is a state secret, or they don't reply at all," he said.
"I haven't been able to get any information at all on those four cities [where reforms are reported to be taking place]," he said.
The Guangzhou-based 21st Century Business Herald reported recently that the eastern province of Jiangsu had already turned all of its labor camp facilities into drug treatment centers.
But an employee at one Jiangsu facility told the paper that they would continue to accept inmates under the RTL system.
"Officials in Jiangsu have warned about the need to prevent media speculation and manage public opinion in order to facilitate the process of reforming RTL," the paper said.
However, some facilities at least still appeared to be firmly in the hands of the police.
An employee who answered the phone at the Jiangsu Women's Re-education Through Labor facility referred all inquiries to the local public security bureau.
"We only accept people sent to us by our local police department," the employee said. "If they're not sent by the police, we don't take them."
Zhejiang-based veteran journalist Zan Aizong said the reforms were likely taking place on the quiet in order to avoid calls for a blanket amnesty for RTL inmates.
"If they announced that they were abolishing re-education through labor, then everyone currently serving time in a labor camp would probably demand to be released all at once," Zan said.
"And if they all started to sue the government after their release for compensation for unjust imprisonment, the volume of complaints would be huge," he added.
"These people should never have been sent to labor camp in the first place, so of course they are going to want to pursue whoever is responsible."
The reports have sparked widespread speculation online, in spite of the government's best efforts to avoid it, however.
On China's popular microblogging service Sina Weibo, user @Friend126 commented: "What are they afraid of?" while user @yaokuangyuntunmian added: "It shows that attitudes are changing, but they still aren't brave enough to come out and admit they did something wrong."
"Are they afraid of losing face? Actually, they would win over public opinion if they admitted this and then did something to change it."
Meanwhile, a commentary in Xi'an's China Business View said secrecy would be the worst kind of failure for the authorities in carrying out these reforms.
"This means they lack confidence, and that they fear the media will make links to areas which aren't going to be reformed," the paper said on Tuesday.
"This could prompt a chain reaction and result in previously unthinkable outcomes," it said. "The deeper problem is that they aren't responsible to public opinion, and there is a lack of effective dialogue between those in power and the people."
The writer, Han Fudong, described the labor camp system as "a rat scurrying in the street, with everyone shouting 'Kill it!'."
"It is ... illegal, disproportionate, and can be abused in the interests of stability maintenance," Han wrote.
"[These flaws] have already been given a full airing by public opinion and highlighted its true nature as an over-weening use of power."
China has vowed to reform its controversial "re-education through labor" system of administrative punishments in 2013 following a prolonged campaign by lawyers, former inmates, and rights activists to abolish it.
Lawyers argue that the system has no basis in China's current law, is a holdover from the political turmoil and kangaroo courts of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), and is a long-running violation of the rights of citizens.
Some 160,000 Chinese people are held without trial in 350 labor camp-style facilities at any given time, government figures show.
But rights groups have warned that the government could slightly modify the current system, but call it something different.
Turning RTL facilities into drug rehabilitation centers may have little impact on the income police departments gain from the camps, nor on the abuses suffered by their inmates.
China's government-run drug rehabilitation centers have also been widely criticized.
In 2011, drug addicts in the southwestern province of Yunnan described a litany of abuses including forced labor, beatings, and neglect at rehabilitation clinics in the region.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.