The concession by the head of the Chinese judicial system that the “re-education through labour system” – i.e. work camps – needs to be reformed will be met with scepticism and caution by even the most positive human rights campaigners.
China’s notorious labour camps, a direct descendant of the formidable Stalinist Gulags, have long been a convenient tool to silence political opposition and cover up troublesome social ills. Any human rights agitator or potential political opponent can easily be charged for some petty crime and transported into the rural interior, out of sight and under close guard. Simultaneously, prostitutes, drug users and the homeless can be swept off Chinese streets, thus alleviating the embarrassment suffered by politicians keen to promote a society of equality.
Why should China want to change a system which, for the past few decades, has served a keen political purpose? Of course, there is criticism from brave domestic human rights campaigners and sporadic diplomatic pressure from abroad. However, such censure has hardly reached unbearable levels. The reason for this is simple; the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) tight control on the media. Through their manipulation of the press, the CCP can comfortably hide the realities of the labour camp system, just as Maoist propaganda subverted the true purpose of the camps by portraying them as important institutions of educational and social advancement.
This latest statement from the head of the judiciary typifies the CCP’s media stranglehold. By declaring that a problem exists and that reform is needed and by in the future publishing some complimentary evidence that such reform has occurred, the age-old system will be able to persist. Many domestic observers, none the wiser, will believe reform has been successful. Those more knowing will have to rebuild their consensus and so the process begins again.
Whilst media control has become harder for the CCP in an era of instant and globalised communication, their cyber monitors have commensurately improved.
Therefore, expect this latest call for reform to be little more than a bluff. Besides, for many Chinese, the labour camp system rids their society of the less desirable characters. Whilst it is unfortunate that genuine political prisoners are amongst these delinquent minorities, you could see why it would be tempting to ignore the issue and let continuing economic growth provide a powerful sedative against the distasteful affair.