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 official Xinhua news agency's brief announcement Monday lacked details, but legal advocates said they were hopeful that the 5-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 Peking University law professor Zhang Qianfan, 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 as long as 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 seeking to end the system and urging that the minor-offense prosecutions be shifted to criminal courts. The campaign has been re-energized in recent months by several cases, promoted in news media, in which people were consigned to the camps for criticizing or simply annoying local party officials.
One of the more notable cases involved southwestern China village official Ren Jianyu,, 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 persuaded Hunan provincial officials 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 Monday by a number of news media outlets -- including word that the party would "stop using the system" within a year. Those accounts were later deleted, however, 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.