China's Communist Party Politics and Law Committee head Meng Jianzhu [China Vitae backgrounder] on Monday notified Chinese media sources of the nation's plan to end its 56 year-old "re-education through labor" program [Xinhua report], which authorizes government entities to legally detain citizens for as long as four years without trial. The proposed legislation is pending approval [Reuters report] from China's National People's Congress (NPC) [official website], which meets in March. From 1957 until the present, suspected criminals, religious dissidents and alleged social agitators have been sentenced without trial to work on farms and in factories for up to four years without conviction, access to legal assistance and with limited appeal. According to media sources, China currently detains approximately 160,000 prisoners in more than 300 camps throughout the country. While various humans rights and legal advocacy groups have praised the notion of abolishing forced labor in its entirety, experts and Chinese sources have expressed concern that the government merely intends to reform or replace the system to ensure stability. According to media sources, the proposal would represent the first major social reform by new Communist leader, Xi Jinping [NYT backgrounder], who is expected to take over the nation's presidency in 2013.
China has been known for its strict policy against dissidents. In June a Chinese court quashed the sentence [JURIST report] against a Chinese blogger and former forestry employee for lack of evidence. With the annulment of the sentence, the Chongqing Third Intermediate Court ruled that the one-year detention of Fang Hong in a police-run labor camp was illegal. Also in June dissident artist Ai Weiwei was banned [JURIST report] from attending the first hearing in the case brought by his company, Fake Cultural Development Ltd., against Beijing tax authorities, despite the fact that the Chinese court had agreed to hear [JURIST report] the case in early May. Filming and key witnesses were excluded from the courthouse while other rights activists such as Hu Jia were also barred from attending the hearing. In May the blind Chinese human rights activist Chen Guangcheng asked the US to increase its effort in promoting the rule of law in China a week following his arrival in New York after he left the US embassy [JURIST reports] in early May.