China has vowed to reform its controversial "re-education through labor" system of administrative punishments following a prolonged campaign by lawyers, former inmates, and rights activists to abolish it, official media reported.
But rights activists and overseas groups gave a doubtful welcome to the news, with some saying it may be too soon to celebrate.
"The Chinese government will advance reforms for its controversial re-education through labor system this year," Xinhua news agency reported following a top meeting of China's law enforcement officials on Monday.
But it said no further information on the reforms had been made available, sparking doubts that the government may yet shy away from genuine abolition.
"This decision, if it truly put an end to re-education through labor, would be an indisputable step towards establishing rule of law in China," said Sophie Richardson, China director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
"Courageous activists and ordinary citizens have long fought to end this system of arbitrary detention," she said.
Calls for abolition
The announcement from Beijing comes amid growing calls from lawyers, activists, and academics for an end to re-education through labor (RTL) sentences, which are administrative, are controlled by the police, and can be handed down for up to a maximum of three years without the need for a trial, with the option to extend by a further year.
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.
In September, a group of 10 Chinese lawyers sent an open letter to China’s ministries of justice and public security, calling for “adjustments” to the RTL system, receiving wide coverage in China's tightly controlled official media.
The letter was prompted by the case of Tang Hui, a woman from the central province of Hunan who was sent to labor camp for challenging the prison sentences of men convicted of raping her daughter.
The authorities have also rolled out trial "reforms" of the RTL system in four Chinese cities, but rights groups say any changes are likely to be cosmetic.
Monday's decision will come into effect after it is approved by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, China’s top legislature.
It will result in the suspension and possible ending of the current administrative detention system controlled by the police.
Some 160,000 Chinese people are held without trial in 350 labor camp-style facilities at any given time, government figures show.
Human Rights Watch warned that the announcement could indicate the government will slightly modify the current system, but call it something different.
"Reports suggest that a revised system would be known by a different name, would establish a maximum sentence, and in theory would allow some procedural rights, such as access to counsel," the group said.
Hangzhou-based rights lawyer Wang Cheng, who signed September's online petition to end RTL, said the government appeared to be listening to a groundswell of public opinion that had grown since the case of Tang Hui caused an outcry.
But he said the move wasn't necessarily a sincere one.
"This is a temporary measure in the face of huge public pressure, to end re-education through labor this year," Wang said. "Then there will be more comprehensive legislation."
"But it's hard to say whether that eventual legislation will be shelved or significantly revised," he added.
Beijing-based legal scholar Teng Biao said the biggest resistance to dropping the system came from within the police administration itself.
"They get a lot of power and there are a lot of vested interests tied up in the re-education through labor system," Teng said.
"A re-education through labor committee can strip a citizen of their freedom for three years, with the option to extend that by another year. That is a huge amount of power."
He said the government's focus on maintaining social stability at all costs meant that it was convenient to have a way of locking people up that didn't involve the state prosecution service or the courts.
"The ministry and departments of public security have been hugely resistant to any sort of reform to the RTL system," Teng added.
Bringing benefits to everyone
Hubei-based petitioner Tang Hui, whose case brought the issue to wider public attention, welcomed the news, saying it would affect large numbers of people.
"Abolishing it isn't just aimed at petitioners; it will bring benefits to everyone," she said in an interview on Tuesday.
"You can be sent for one to four years' re-education through labor at a single word from the police," she said. "This has a devastating effect on a person."
"Losing one's freedom is the worst kind of suffering."
But Wuhan-based petitioner Fang Hong, whose own labor camp sentence was overturned after the fall of former Chongqing Party boss Bo Xilai, said via his account on the Twitter-like service Sina Weibo that it was too soon to be glad.
He said the names of the RTL camps would simply be changed.
Human Rights Watch's Richardson said cosmetic changes would do nothing to end the "notorious" abuses that were rife under the current RTL system, and might entrench them further.
"Only abolition will suffice, and it is time that the new administration of Xi Jinping takes steps towards ensuring due process," she said.
Reported by Xin Yu for RFA's Mandarin service and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.