The US-based Laogai Research Foundation (LRF) estimates that up to 500,000 people could still be in such facilities. Other rights groups, using information published by the justice ministry, say the number could have dropped to 190,000. Hu Xingdou, a Beijing-based economist who has led calls to abolish laojiao, says there are more than 300 centres holding an average of 1,000 to 2,000 prisoners each. In addition, many unofficial centres also exist, usually holding people for days and weeks without charges.
For the past two years, Beijing has been drafting legislation to abolish laojiao centres. By contrast, most laogai (reform-through-labour) facilities were rebranded as prisons after the Communist Party officially ended the use of the name in 1994. The Laogai Research Foundation estimates that 40 million to 50 million people have been imprisoned in the laogai system since the 1950s.
Laojiao is generally used to detain persons for minor crimes such as prostitution, burglary and assault. In a typical case reported by state media in November, a restaurant manager in Shenzhen was sentenced to one year of laojiao for distributing forged banknotes.
However, rights groups have continued to document the detention of people deemed prisoners of conscience. Among them is Shenyang-based Zhang Huaiyang, who was sentenced to 18 months of laojiao in June for posting online the Charter '08 for democratic reform and other political articles. He tried, unsuccessfully, to challenge his sentence in local courts, according to the Hong Kong-based China Human Rights Defenders. Another dissident in a laojiao centre is Zhang Jie. She was detained many times for petitioning Beijing over a dispute that began in 2003 when her family sought better terms of compensation over the demolition of their home.
LRF founder Harry Wu spent the next 19 years in the laogai system. He was arrested and sent to a camp in 1960 for protesting against the Soviet invasion of Hungary. After his release in 1979 he left China for the United States where he has been fighting this indecency ever since.
Laojiao prisoners are forced to work, officially to reform them for society. However, they are often used by the authorities as cheap labour, for example to make balls for the 2008 Beijing Olympics or export goods like lights, shoes, car parts and hand tools for the Christmas shopping season, Hu said.
The authorities “don't need any evidence, they don't need any trial” and for prisoners “there is no right of appeal,” Hu said. “The government keeps saying it wants a nation ruled by law, but the movement is backwards.”
The United Nations has condemned prison without due process and has called on China to abolish laogai facilities, which are in violation of international conventions.
China’s National People’s Congress formally announced in 2005 that it would draft legislation to change the laojiao system, but in 2008 Teng Wei, deputy director of the NPC's criminal law office, said several key issues still needed "further discussion".
According to official media, the main disagreement that has held up change pits the Ministry of Public Security, which seeks to keep the laojiao system intact, against the Supreme People's Court, which favours judicial procedure for all sentences. In the meantime, nothing has changed.
The abolition of laojiao will take "at least five to ten years,” Hu told the South China Morning Post. One reason is that "some officials think it is necessary to stabilise society", Hu said. "Of course, another major reason is that the laojiao system creates huge profits.