Beijing shuts Mao prison camps

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Originally published by The Australian on December 30, 2013

Chinese President Xi Jinping, right with Taiwanese leader Vincent Siew, will expect the news to boost his reform credentials.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, right with Taiwanese leader Vincent Siew, will expect the news to boost his reform credentials. Source: AFP

CHINA’S National People’s Congress has passed ground-breaking resolutions to abolish re-education-through-labour camps and to relax the one-child policy.

These become the first reforms in the package approved last month by the Third Plenum of the ruling Communist Party, to move towards the implementation stage.

The announcement over the weekend will boost the reform credentials of the country’s top leader, President Xi Jinping, who made a rare visit on Saturday, well covered by the state media, to a Beijing steamed bun shop to demonstrate his human touch.

The hated laojiao system, in which about 300,000 people are detained every year, usually for political or religious dissidence or for petty crimes including drug use, was introduced by Mao Zedong in 1957.

The state-run news agency Xinhua said their “historical mission” had now been completed, and that the inmates would be freed.

The 260 camps, which largely followed the Soviet gulag model, have enabled the authorities to lock people up for up to four years without trial.

The US based Chinese Human Rights Defenders, while welcoming the end of the laojiao system, warned that authorities around China have in recent years established “black jails” and other extra-legal mechanisms for detaining people they brand as troublemakers.

The standing committee of the NPC also passed a resolution to allow couples to have two children if one of the parents is an only child. Previously, that has been the case only if both parents were only children.

This is expected to make 15 to 20 million couples eligible, and demographers anticipate it will result in a further two million births a year, bringing the total to nine million. The birth rate has fallen to about 1.5, well below the replacement rate.

The one-child policy introduced under Deng Xiaoping about 35 years ago succeeded in boosting China’s average wealth, but the country faces the challenge of a rapidly ageing population, casting a burden on a diminishing number of income earners.

The Beijing Times said this “will not only deal with the demographic dividend decline, labour shortages and other issues, but also help to build a strong social security and pension system” with more contributors.

However, as the weight of China’s population has shifted to urban areas and has grown more middle-class in its aspirations, and as the cost of living and of raising children has soared, couples have become reluctant to have more than one child even when they are legally entitled to do so.

The Communist Party flagship People’s Daily said that surveys show only half of those who will now qualify to have an extra child will seek to do so.

The Third Plenum meeting of the party that approved these two key reforms also pencilled in a broad range of other changes, chiefly in the economic realm to shift China towards a more market-based system.

The NPC standing committee will now face the challenge of pursuing these early in the new year in the lead-up to the annual session of the parliament in March.

Meanwhile, Mr Xi happened to drop in at a popular Qingfeng steamed bun shop, where he queued and paid $3.50 from his own pocket for a traditional meal of pork-and-onion buns, green vegetables and fried liver.

Such media-driven moves have not been unknown for Chinese premiers, but are very rare for the top leaders and party general secretaries such as Xi, who has become during this year the most powerful national figure since Deng Xiaoping.


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