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HONG KONG — How much of a reformer is China’s new leader, Xi Jinping? The announcement in January that by year’s end China is going to stop using or even abolish “Re-education Through Labor” — the notorious system instituted in the mid-1950s and modeled on the Soviet gulag — could offer an important clue.

While the government has provided no details about what it intends to do, it is not likely that the re-education archipelago — an estimated 350 labor camps with about 160,000 inmates — will be closed anytime soon. Presumably the camps will continue to hold inmates sentenced for crimes like drug abuse, prostitution and minor offenses.

But the proposed change could put an end to China’s largest system of administrative detention, a punishment imposed solely through an administrative decision, without any trial.

Laojiao, as the re-education system is known in Chinese, is nominally reserved for minor crimes that do not qualify for criminal punishment. Under Mao, most Laojiao inmates were victims of political purges. From the 1980s, they became mostly petty criminals and minor offenders, including juveniles. But the police have also long used it as an expedient tool for suppressing dissent and incarcerating government critics, petitioners, whistle-blowers, rights activists, members of underground Christian churches or banned religious sects, and others deemed a “threat” to public order.

One such “threat” was Tang Hui, sentenced in early August 2012 to 18 months of Laojiao for protesting the lenient sentences passed on the people who had kidnapped, raped and forced into prostitution her 11-year-old daughter. Tang’s case was the biggest of several cases that spiraled last year into a national outrage over Re-education Through Labor thanks to the Chinese citizenry’s newfound power of microblogging. Tang was released on Aug. 10.

Conditions in re-education camps are dire: Physical abuse by guards and the criminal elements they entrust to enforce “order” is common, as are long hours of arduous work with no rest day; institutionalized corruption; deficient health care; and what the Justice Ministry refers to as “abnormal deaths.”

The most authoritative official statement on Re-education Through Labor’s fate since January, by a political and legal affairs party leader, Chen Jiping, suggests that the system will be entirely scrapped by the end of 2013. What will come after remains unclear. The government reportedly had considered setting up a somewhat milder system of administrative detention, but Laojiao-lite would not be much progress.

Some lawyers have pointed out that Re-education Through Labor is unlawful under the current Constitution and China’s obligations as a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1998. They have advocated instead that the judiciary should set up special courts to handle minor offenses.

Regardless of which route is chosen, any improvements on paper might be quickly reversed in practice if not accompanied by more comprehensive legal reforms. After Chinaabolished the crime of “counterrevolution” in 1997, in what was then hailed as a major advance, the only real change proved to be that political offenders were sentenced under “state security” crimes instead.

The Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, who is serving an 11-year sentence for “incitement to subvert state power and the socialist system,” can attest to that. Similarly, when in 2003 the government abolished another kind of administrative detention system, local authorities started confining some “troublemakers” to illegal “black jails” and psychiatric hospitals.

Nonetheless, for Xi Jinping to make the abolition of Laojiao his first initiative on the legal front could signal that he doesn’t intend to give the security apparatus influence beyond its law-enforcement portfolio.

His risk-averse predecessor, Hu Jintao, allowed the security apparatus to hijack his “harmonious society” agenda and to instead create a massive “stability preservation” project that likely fueled as much conflict as it crushed. Now the security apparatus has been politically downgraded and its head removed from the Communist Party’s top echelon, the Politburo’s Standing Committee.

Abolishing Re-education Through Labor alone would not solve the many failings of China’s criminal justice system, nor would it mark an end to the suppression of government critics.

Nonetheless it would be an important step forward, removing what has remained for decades a crippling obstacle toward realizing a fundamental requirement of any system of the rule of law: that no one accused of a crime can be deprived of liberty without a fair trial before a court. It would be a good start.

Nicholas Bequelin is senior researcher in the Asia division of Human Rights Watch.

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