Much ink has been spilled during the past week over the informal announcement that China's police-imposed long-term punishment of "re-education through labour" would, by the end of the year, "cease to be used". The newly appointed head of the Communist Party's all-powerful political-legal commission, Meng Jianzhu , made this announcement at a national judicial conference. Understandably, since nothing less than the constitutional protection of 1.3 billion people against arbitrary imprisonment is at stake, Chinese and foreign commentators have been scrutinising the inscrutable.
What did Meng mean? There are many possibilities. Did he simply mean that, in the exercise of its discretion, the police would at least temporarily suspend sending a couple of hundred thousand defenceless people to labour camps each year? Did he also mean that, in the coming months, the more than 300 existing re-education through labour sites would be emptied of their current occupants.
Or did he mean even less - that the government would only change the name of this notorious punishment but keep it in substance? Ever since its formal establishment in 1957, the police have lobbied tenaciously to retain this instrument of control, which subjects individuals to long-term detention in the name of social "harmony" without bothering to seek their indictment by prosecutors and trial, conviction, sentencing and appellate review by courts.