According to official statistics, China has 350 labor camps throughout the country. Approximately 160,000 inmates are held without trial in these facilities. As today’s Guardian article explains,
China’s “re-education through labour” system, in place since 1957, allows police to sentence petty criminals to up to four years’ confinement without involving the courts, a system critics say undermines the rule of law and is used against political activists.
Human Rights Watch agrees that police use the system to harm activists:
In practice, the system has frequently been abused by the police to punish human rights defenders, petitioners seeking redress for abuses, and political dissidents. Detainees are often forced to work in harsh and dangerous conditions. They are given hard quotas to complete on a daily basis, and those who fail to meet these targets, as well as those who are considered disobedient, are in some cases subject to physical abuse, cruel inhuman or degrading treatment, or even torture.
State media reported today that the Chinese government will reform the system of forced labor camps this year. Although earlier reports said China would abolish the system, those reports were removed from media websites without any explanation. How the government will reform the system is unknown, but to be meaningful, the reforms must go beyond procedural improvements (e.g., a hearing or legal counsel for the defendants).