China Must Release Prisoners of Conscience When Reforming Labor Camps


The Chinese government should release all prisoners of conscience held in China’s labor camps as part of any meaningful reform of the decades old system, Freedom House said on Monday.

On January 7, Meng Jianzhu, who was handed the portfolio supervising police and legal matters after the Communist Party’s 18th Congress in November 2012, stated that the regime would stop using “re-education through labor” camps this year, contingent upon approval by the National People’s Congress in March 2013. State-run media quickly clarified the announcement to imply reform, rather than abolition, of the system of over 300 camps that hold upwards of 200,000 to 300,000 people. Currently, security agents can send any Chinese citizen to a forced labor camp for up to four years without a trial.

“China’s Communist Party leaders are masters at changing the form but not the substance of their tools of political repression,” said Sarah Cook, senior research analyst for East Asia at Freedom House. “Any genuine reform of the labor camp system must include release of the untold thousands of petitioners, grassroots activists, Christians, and Falun Gong practitioners reportedly held there.”

In addition to those arbitrarily detained in the camps for drug, prostitution, and petty theft charges, the system is routinely used to punish people for their political activism or religious identity. A 2009 study by the Chinese Human Rights Defenders group found that Falun Gong practitioners, Christians, and petitioners constituted a significant percentage of those incarcerated in the camps.

Since then, reports have continued to emerge of politically-motivated imprisonment and camps with large numbers of detainees who are prisoners of conscience. In May 2011, a vice president of the unregistered Chinese House Church Alliance was sentenced to two years in a camp. In November 2012, veteran Shanghai human rights defender Mao Hengfeng was sentenced to 18 months after going to petition in Beijing. Last month, Amnesty International reported that seven people were sentenced to labor camps for two years for practicing Falun Gong after plainclothes police abducted them in a series of home raids in northeast China.

“Reform—or even better, abolition—of the “re-education through labor” camp system would be a welcome step,” Cook said. “But the international community must be careful not to reward cosmetic changes that leave innocent and courageous individuals languishing under horrific conditions.”

Public pressure for abolishing the system has intensified in recent months after several high-profile cases of unjust imprisonment. This is not the first time that the government has floated the idea of reforming the system, and human rights activists fear it will be replaced with another form of administrative or judicial detention that would still enable the regime to swiftly jail its critics.

China is one of the world’s worst human rights abusers, rated Not Free in Freedom in the World 2012, Freedom House's survey of political rights and civil liberties , and Not Free in Freedom of the Press 2012 and Freedom on the Net 2012.

To learn more about China, visit:

Freedom in the World 2012: China

Freedom of the Press 2012: China

Freedom on the Net 2012: China

Blog: Freedom at Issue

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Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.

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