In the New York Times, Human Rights Watch’s Nicholas Bequelin argues that while reported reforms of the re-education through labor (laojiao) system are a sign of progress, the actual impact of any changes remains to be seen:
While the government has provided no details about what it intends to do, it is not likely that the re-education archipelago — an estimated 350 labor camps with about 160,000 inmates — will be closed anytime soon. Presumably the camps will continue to hold inmates sentenced for crimes like drug abuse, prostitution and minor offenses.
But the proposed change could put an end to China’s largest system of administrative detention, a punishment imposed solely through an administrative decision, without any trial.
[…] Some lawyers have pointed out that Re-education Through Labor is unlawful under the current Constitution and China’s obligations as a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1998. They have advocated instead that the judiciary should set up special courts to handle minor offenses.
Regardless of which route is chosen, any improvements on paper might be quickly reversed in practice if not accompanied by more comprehensive legal reforms. After China abolished the crime of “counterrevolution” in 1997, in what was then hailed as a major advance, the only real change proved to be that political offenders were sentenced under “state security” crimes instead.