The comments were made on Monday by Meng Jianzhu, the head of the Communist Party's influential Political and Legal Committee, which oversees law enforcement and courts.
China's re-education camps are run by police and critics say they're used in part to punish dissidents and citizens who try to fight for their rights, and that torture is commonplace.
Presenter: Liam Cochrane
Speakers: Sophie Richardson, Asia spokeswoman, Human Rights Watch
RICHARDSON: Official statistics suggest that at any given time, there are about 350 facilities in use that have incarcerated in about 160,000 people, but as we know from a lot of different issues in China, government statistics are not always terribly reliable. So it is possible that there are both more people and more facilities than those numbers would suggest.
COCHRANE: And what sort of work are people forced to do?
RICHARDSON: It's everything from manufacturing to labour on surrounding infrastructural projects. But to us the issue is that is is forced, that people are not given a choice and I think it's very important that people understand that re-education through labour is a system that is under the control of administrative or police authorities in China, not the judicial system. So all of the people who are incarcerated in this system have wound up there without the benefit of a defence counsel, without access to the evidence that's presented against them and without a decision being rendered about the sentence by a judge. So it is a profoundly arbitrary system of detention.
COCHRANE: And that has given rise to quite a lot of discussion about the use of re-education as a form of reform or punishment I guess. Can you tell us about some of the cases that have sparked public interest?
RICHARDSON: Yeah, there have been... We think that part of the reason that may have prompted today's announcement maybe a response to rising public outcry over a couple of cases that became quite prominent last year. One of them involved a woman who in pursuit of justice for the rape of her young daughter was herself sentenced to re-education through labour and was released after she'd served about a week of that sentence, because there had been such an outcry.
But there was another case recently involving a very young village official who was sentenced to re-education through labour simply for wearing a T-shirt that had a phrase about freedom and democracy on it. Some of the people who are incarcerated in our jail have done absolutely nothing that's in violation of black letter Chinese laws.
COCHRANE: Now the big shift has been the comments from Meng Jianzhu, the head of the Chinese Communist Party's Political and Legal Committee, saying that the system will be abolished or that the government will stop using re-education through labour. But is it clear what exactly will change?
RICHARDSON: No, it's not, and that's really where the concerns are still very real. We don't want to end up with effectively re-education through labour light, meaning a similar system that simply has a different name or some minor procedural guarantees attached to a system that still essentially is arbitrary. What we need to see is the wholesale abolition of the re-education through labour system and so while we're certainly pleased to have heard this announcement today [Monday], we're still a long way away from anything meaningful really changing.