BEIJING -- China will start overhauling its draconian system of re-education through labor in the coming year, according to the state news media, signaling the incoming leadership's determination to alter one of the government's more widely despised cudgels for punishing petty criminals, religious dissidents, petitioners and other perceived social irritants.
The brief announcement on Monday, by the official Xinhua news agency, lacked details, but legal advocates said they were hopeful that the five-decade-old system for locking up offenders without trial would be significantly modified, if not abolished altogether.
"If true, this would be an important advance," said Zhang Qianfan, a law professor at Peking University who has long pushed for the system's demise. "It's a tool that is widely abused."
Established by Mao Zedong in the 1950s to swiftly neutralize political opponents, re-education through labor has evolved into a sprawling extralegal system of 350 camps where more than 100,000 people toil in prison factories and on farms for up to four years. Sentences are meted out by local public security officials and defendants have no access to lawyers, and little chance for appeal.
Since the 1980s, legal scholars and human rights advocates have been urging an end to the system and urging that the prosecution of minor offenses be shifted to criminal courts. The campaign has been re-energized in recent months by several cases, widely promoted in the news media, in which people were consigned to the camps for criticizing or simply annoying local party officials.
Among the more notable cases was that of Ren Jianyu, a college graduate turned village official in southwestern China who was sent to a work camp for "subversion" after investigators found in his closet a T-shirt that declared "Freedom or death." In November, local officials, apparently cowed by a welter of condemnation in newspapers and on the Internet, cut short his two-year sentence.
A similar backlash also convinced officials in Hunan Province last summer to free a woman, Tang Hui, who was given an 18-month sentence after she repeatedly protested that the seven men who had raped and forced her 11-year-old daughter into prostitution had been treated too leniently.
But any jubilation that the system might be on its way out was tempered by the manner in which the news emerged. Details of a conference held by top judicial and legal officials were reported online on Monday by a number of news media outlets -- including word that the party would "stop using the system" within a year. Those accounts, however, were later deleted, leaving only the brief Xinhua account.
Chen Dongsheng, a bureau chief for the official Legal Daily who listened to a closed-circuit telecast of the meeting, told The Associated Press that Meng Jianzhu, chief of the Communist Party's politics and law committee, had pledged to end the system, saying it had "played a useful role in the past but conditions had now changed."
But Mr. Chen's microblog postings on the subject promptly disappeared and he could not be reached for comment.
In its own report, Xinhua used the word "reform," suggesting the changes to the system labor might be less than sweeping. Such changes could involve giving the system the legislative authority it currently lacks and subjecting decisions to some level of judicial review, although China's party-controlled courts rarely rule in favor of defendants.
In a separate account of the same meeting, Xinhua included comments by Mr. Meng and Xi Jinping, the incoming president, but left out any mention of re-education through labor. Mr. Xi, who has promised to strengthen the nation's legal system since his elevation to party secretary in November, reiterated his support for greater rule of law, saying the government should "improve empathy and public credibility of legal affairs work, striving to ensure that the public feels that justice is served in every law case."
Rights advocates are pleased that the issue is on the leadership's agenda but said that the devil would be in the details. Previous proposals for change, they noted, have included an 18-month cap on sentences, weekend furloughs for prisoners and allowing defendants access to lawyers. But such modifications alone, they said, would leave intact the bones of a system that violates international legal conventions as well as Chinese law.
"The risk is we'll get re-education lite -- a system that perpetuates the ability of police to deprive people of liberty for significant periods of time without trial or judicial oversight," said Nicholas Bequelin, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. "My fear is that such a system would end up being harder to do away with."
Patrick Zuo contributed research.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.