Rome (AsiaNews) - In 2013, China will put an end to forced labor camps, in particular the laojiao ("reform through labor"), where many Christians, members of the Falun Gong and persons responsible for petty crimes are sent.
The news, for now unofficial, was circulated by the South China Morning Post. According to the Hong Kong newspaper, today at a meeting, Meng Jianzhu, Secretary of the Committee for Political and Legal Affairs of the Chinese Communist Party, said that this year China will stop the practice of "re-education through labor".
Unofficial estimates say that between 190 and 2 million people are interned in laojiao. The state owned China Daily newspaper, says that there are approximately 320 laojiao labour camps, where 500 thousand people, mostly criminals from the world of drugs, are held.
The labor camps - organized like factories or mini-industries - the prisoners have a punishing schedule, of up to 12-15 hours for less than the minimum monthly pay
If the news is confirmed by an official decision, it would mark a sea change in the Chinese penal system. And it would mean the liberation of many Christians, members of other religious groups, dissidents, who are sent to forced labor camps on the arbitrary whim of the police or the local governors.
In recent days, some priests and faithful of Hebei told AsiaNews their hope to soon see their bishops imprisoned in secret for decades and the return of their priests, locked up in laojiao for two or three years.
Their hope is based on the launch of the reform of the penal code, which does not allow more than six months imprisonment without charge or without notifying the families of inmates. The laojiao, however, are a method of confinement imposed by police in where there is no need for charges or trial and can last up to three years (extendable up to four) and in which there is no need to notify families of the accused ( or in many cases suspect) of the arrest and imprisonment.
The laojiao (short form of "laodong jiaoyang" reeducation through labor) was implemented by Mao Zedong in 1957 to "reform" the mind of "counterrevolutionaries" and "the conservative right".
Already last year, Jiang Wei, head of the Central Group for legal reform, admitted that the laojiao needed revision. While considering the system "legitimate and useful to the stability of society," Jiang said that they were now in need of reforms, especially regarding who decides to impose the death sentence. Jiang's admissions emerged last August after a case that caused scandal and a public outcry: the mother of a girl who had been raped was locked up in laojiao because she had presented a petition to the authorities. At that time a lot of public opinion and several members of the government had called for the abolition of the system.
In addition to internal pressures, the Chinese government is also subjected to international pressure. Many human rights groups condemn China for this detention system. Some countries like the United States, also boycott Chinese products the result of forced labor.
About two months ago, news headlines carried the story of a note hidden within a toy for Halloween, "made in China", from an inmate in a labor camp. The discovery took place in Oregon. The short message written in poor English, read:
If you occasionally buy this product, please kindly resend this letter to the World Human Right Organization. Thousands people here who are under the persicution [sic] of the Chinese Communist Party Government will thank and remember you forever.
This product produced by Unit 8, Department 2, Mashanjla Labour Camp, Shen Young, Liaoning, China.
People who work here have to work 15 hours a day without Saturday (or) Sunday break and any holidays, otherwise they will suffer torturement [sic], beat and rude remark, nearly no payment (10 Yuan/one month) [about 1 euro]) " .
China Human Rights Watch says it can not establish the veracity of the message, but the conditions described are consistent with what is known of the situation of laojiao.
It must be said that the laojiao is a subgroup of Laogai ("reform through labor"). This is harsher than the laojiao is imposed following a court judgment and may last for decades. According to the Laogai Research Foundation in China there are at least 1045 laogai, with about 4 million prisoners.
The industrial or agricultural structures of the laogai are a real production system that contributes to the Chinese economy. The Laogai prisoners are not paid. Apparently, no member of the Chinese government has called for the elimination of the Laogai.