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China has announced it will reform its controversial labor camps, although exactly what reform means is unclear. These camps are commonly referred to by the Chinese government as re-education centers. They allow detention without trial for up to four years. And according to Chinese media, they housed some 160,000 prisoners at the end of 2008. Pressure for reform increased after some of those prisoners went public with their stories. NPR's Louisa Lim spoke with one of them.
LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: Ren Jianyu had been a young village official. He became an outspoken critic of labor camps after spending 15 months in one. He was sent there by police at the age of 24 without trial or even seeing a lawyer. His crime? Criticizing the local government in Chongqing by re-tweeting or forwarding 100 messages containing negative information.
REN JIANYU: (Through Translator) By chance I had made a T-shirt saying give me liberty or give me death. They used this clothing as proof I was inciting subversion of the government. I kept thinking, why? What makes me different from the millions of other Internet users? They may have written tens of thousands of tweets and are fine, while I only sent 100.
LIM: He spent more than a year coiling wire in a labor camp. That's known as re-education through labor. His fellow prisoners were those who had fallen foul of the government: thieves, gamblers, petitioners with grievances against officials, those with political views like his. Today, he reacted to the news that the re-education through labor system will be reformed.
JIANYU: (Through Translator) When I first saw the news, I was very happy. At least, it's a small step towards reform. It shows a trend in the top leadership. But the road is still very long.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)
LIM: In this unlikely propaganda feature about one labor camp, blue-suited inmates are shown bent over their work making electrical wiring. The inmates make computer cables and headphones for MP3 players. Ren Jianyu says he worked for about ten hours a day, during which he was not allowed to speak to fellow inmates. He seldom had a day off. Highly publicized cases like his have led to a groundswell of criticism of the system according to Josh Rosenzweig, a researcher at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
JOSH ROSENZWEIG: Particularly over the past year, the writing has been on the wall. Re-education through labor system is not only in violation of Chinese constitution, it's in violation of Chinese law. And this has been well-known and discussed for many years.
LIM: But even the way in which the news was released has raised questions. Earlier in the day, official micro blogs reported China would end the re-education through labor system. But that information was then deleted from the Internet and not repeated on the evening news. Lawyer Pu Zhiqiang has been campaigning for this moment. He says it's too early to celebrate.
PU ZHIQIANG: (Through Translator) I have been looking forward to this day, so I'm very happy. But I'm not very satisfied. It's not enough to just stop using re-education through labor. It should be abolished.
LIM: So what does this news say about China's new leaders? Optimists say it's come earlier than expected and could show new focus on rule-of-law issues. Pessimists point to continuing arbitrary detentions in other venues and the lack of clarity that is apparently intentional. The authoritative Xinhua News Agency had this to say: No further information on the reform was available for now. Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.