China’s Southwestern border province Yunnan is to stop the intake of prisoners to its labor camps for some offences in what could be the first step in ending a dark chapter in modern Chinese history.

Chinese police parade a group of men who were caught stealing bicycles before they were sent to labor camps for two years. Pic: AP.

People arrested for “endangering national security, causing a stir while petitioning and smearing the image of leaders” would no longer be sent to “education through labor” camps, Meng Sutie, the head of the provincial security department, said at a meeting on Tuesday. He also said that the entire “reform through labor” system has been temporarily suspended.

The milestone move comes almost a decade after a first lawmaker has publicly called for an abolition of the widely despised extralegal detentions, which can last for years. In the last month, calls for reform of the so-called “laojiao” system have accelerated. On Jan. 7, Chen Jiping, the Party Secretary of the China’s national Law Society, said that changes to the system were “imminent.” On Jan. 29 a Guangdong official said China’s economic powerhouse province was planning to abolish laojiao.

Yet, there are also more cautious voices out there. In reaction to Yunnan’s halt, the liberal Beijing-based daily Xinjingbao republished a story from last August on its website in which it reported that laojiao would be replaced with an “education and correctional treatment for illegal behaviour” system. The new system would be tested in four second-tier cities: Lanzhou, Jinan, Nanjing and Zhengzhou.

In 2005 and 2010, the national establishment of such a system has been included in the annual legislative agenda of China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress, the daily reported. But neither time a law came into being. In 2011, Nanjing had set up a work group to prepare for the pilot scheme.

The scope of the new system would be more narrow and “adopt relatively reasonable procedures,” the daily quoted national lawmaker and Chongqing University law professor Chen Zhonglin.

For now, Yunnan’s reform affects only a negligible portion of the countrywide laojiao system. Yunnan has but some 200 laojiao inmates, according to the Yunnan provincial news report. The same report said that nationwide system “can accommodate” 260,000 laojiao inmates.

Some 60,000 people are serving laojiao sentences in China, according to Wang Gongyi, director of the research office of China’s Ministry of Justice. A 2009 report by the U.N. Human Rights Council estimates the number to be much higher: 190,000.

Drug addicts will still face extralegal detention in Yunnan. “There is no more laojiao, but there still is coerced drug therapy,” the report quoted an unnamed laojiao administrator as saying. “It’s not like with laojiao ending that the policemen in the system run out of work.”