China's announcement that it will abolish the controversial "re-education through labor" system may have little meaning on the ground, depending on how thoroughly it is implemented, activists said on Monday.
China will abolish the system "as part of a major effort to protect human rights," official media reported on Friday.
But former inmates of the system, under which jail terms of up to four years can be handed down by police-controlled committees without need for a trial, say they are highly skeptical that the authorities will cease the practice in reality.
Rights activist Xiao Yong, who was among the first to call in recent years for the abolition of the system, said inmates in the "laojiao" system are highly vulnerable to torture and mistreatment, because it is run by China's public security bureau with no oversight from the courts.
"I don't think this will be a real abolition," Xiao said. "I think it's more like covering it up."
"They have covered up the real suffering of real laojiao inmates, and they are trying to wash their hands clean, just like criminals," he said.
"At the same time, they are hiding the reality of their crimes."
Promise of reform
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.
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 citizens' rights.
And rights activists are now warning that the government may only slightly modify the current system and call it something different.
In some areas, labor camp facilities have been turned into drug rehabilitation centers, which may have little impact on the income police departments gain from the camps, nor on the abuses suffered by their inmates, according to overseas rights groups.
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.
Changes were already visible at a former labor camp in the southwestern megacity of Chongqing, several weeks before the announcement, sources said on Monday.
Chongqing-based petitioner and former labor camp inmate Fang Hong, said he had found no one there when he visited a labor camp in the city's Peiling district in September.
"I don't know about the other places, but the Peiling Re-education Through Labor Center, I know, [has no inmates], because I went there."
"They're not locking anyone up there now. The police are attending classes and making reports," he said.
"There's been no one locked up in there for three months now."
Only for show?
But petitioner Li Xuehui, who served a year in labor camp for spreading leaflets on Tiananmen Square in Beijing complaining about government wrongdoing, said he fears the announcement was only for show.
"I'm afraid they'll 'abolish' it, but that it will still really exist," he said. "If they do really abolish it, that will be because of all our hard work."
"I think they are still a long way from implementing the Constitution," he said, adding that activists and former inmates are planning to continue their abolition campaign after the announcement on Friday.
"We want to find 1,000 former labor camp inmates and persuade 10,000 people to sign our petition," he said.
U.S.-based Cultural Revolution scholar Song Yongyi said the re-education through labor system was established in the 1950s during former national leader Mao Zedong's "anti-rightist" campaigns.
"It wasn't abolished at the end of the campaigns because the authorities found it convenient to have a way to deprive people of their freedom without going through legal procedures," he said.
"Basically, they just locked these people up. It's taken far too long to get around to abolishing it now," he said.
"This monstrosity should have been canceled out years ago."
Many thousands held
Song said that people were typically sent to labor camp after unofficial struggle sessions with large numbers of bystanders at their workplace or factory under the "dictatorship of the proletariat."
The system is distinct from China's "laogai" gulag system, known as "reform through labor," which is administered via the criminal justice system.
Estimates of the number of people in the system across China vary.
Official media reports on Friday said around 160,000 people are currently being held at 350 "re-education through labor" centers.
However, a 2009 United Nations report estimated that 190,000 Chinese have been locked up under the system, where many prisoners face extremely long work days manufacturing goods or doing agricultural work.
And earlier this year, state broadcaster CCTV said China has 310 labor camps holding about 310,000 prisoners and employing 100,000 staff.
Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service and by Xiao Rong for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.