BEIJING (AP) — All it took was a handwritten note from police to send Zhao Meifu to a labor camp for a year in China's arid northwest.
The farmer had been seeking redress for decades over a land grab by village officials. Tired of her complaints, police saw the labor camp as a quick way to get rid of her.
"They did not like my mother, so they locked her up," Zhao's son, Guo Dajun, said in a recent interview.
She was locked up in a long hated and often abused penal system known as labor re-education. Chinese police have used it to lock up tens of thousands of people for up to four years without a trial or a judge's review.
Established to punish early critics of the Communist Party, it was retooled to focus on petty criminals but now is used by local officials to deal with people challenging their authority on issues including land rights and corruption.
Cases like Zhao's last year have galvanized critics, many of them within the government, and China's newly installed leadership is seizing on expectations for reform.
"There's little left to be debated. It should be abolished right away," said Hou Xinyi, a law professor from Nankai University in the city of Tianjin. Hou serves on China's top political advisory body, which is meeting in Beijing this week alongside the national legislature. Commentators in the media and on the Internet are hoping that some deputies propose that the system be overhauled during the 13-day legislative session, which ends Sunday.
"Only the law should decide on a citizen's personal freedom," Hou said.
What to do with the system has become a test of Communist Party chief Xi Jinping's commitment to advance the rule of law and temper police and other security officials who often run roughshod over the legal system.
Curbing or ending labor re-education would be a boost for legal reformers. The system is frequently used to silence minor government critics and ordinary Chinese like Zhao who are considered nuisances by local officials.
In 1989, officials seeking property for development schemes started seizing Zhao's farmland in Shanzidun village, in the dry yellow hills outside the provincial capital of Lanzhou. She has asked higher-level authorities for the return of her land or fair compensation, to no avail.
In 2010, police sent her to labor re-education for a year; she was forced to do jobs like deshelling almonds but was soon released for health reasons. Last year, while visiting her son, a graduate student in Beijing, hometown police took her away. With a short, handwritten note, they reinstated her uncompleted 2010 sentence.
"I was so angry my blood pressure soared," Zhao said of the day she was booked into the labor camp. "I felt there was not a thread of hope."
Zhao was released after 18 days, officially on medical grounds, but she believes she was let out because of public pressure. Calls to the local labor camp and a government official overseeing the camp rang unanswered in several attempts.
Former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai and his police chief, Wang Lijun, used labor re-education to quell dissent before they were ousted a year ago in China's highest-profile political scandal in years.
For an online posting questioning Bo's crackdown, factory worker Liu Shiyin was given two years in a labor camp in 2009. He was accused of creating a "terrorist atmosphere."
"There was no dignity to speak of," in the camp, Liu recalled. "You had to squat to eat your meals. Life there was inhuman. Beating and chiding were common."
Liu said he and the other inmates were forced to wrap thin copper wires onto tiny magnets to be used as electronic parts. "My fingers hurt so much I couldn't sleep at night," Liu said.
A skilled worker needed nine hours to complete the daily workload, and less dexterous inmates could spend more than 10 hours trying to meet their daily production quota, Liu said.
Reforms, if they materialize, are likely to be limited. Labor re-education is only part of a large penal system. Activists considered to be a threat to the party are routinely placed under house arrest or sent to prison on vaguely-defined charge of subversion, and that is not expected to change.
Legal experts are concerned that authorities might replace labor re-education with something even less accountable, like the makeshift off-the-books holding centers known as "black jails." Local officials and police often use black jails, sometimes for months at a time, to house petitioners, people who are trying to bring grievances inflicted by local authorities to the attention of the central government.
"They are even worse than labor camps," said Wang Cailiang, a Beijing-based lawyer. "If the authorities come up with any new method, it will be a grave mistake."
Lan Guiyuan was thrown into a black jail last week after she showed up outside the Communist Party's internal watchdog agency in Beijing to petition about corruption in her native Hunan province. Security guards threw her into a police van and she was taken to a former factory complex turned holding pen.
"By noon they had thrown so many of us petitioners in there, I couldn't breathe and started shouting, 'I want human rights.' Others started calling out 'Communist Party black jail. Give us freedom,'" said Lan, who was later shipped back to her hometown of Yueyang.
Still, reforming labor re-education would mark progress. Initially set up in the 1950s to detain accused counterrevolutionaries or other critics of the Communist government, the education-through-labor system was revamped around 1980 to hold drug addicts, petty thieves, prostitutes and other small-time offenders.
As many as 40,000 people are detained in roughly 300 labor re-education camps across the country, according to Wang Gongyi, who recently retired as director of a research institute under the Ministry of Justice. Another 100,000 drug addicts are undergoing compulsory treatment in facilities that were separated out from the labor camps several years ago, he said.
Inmates in some of the centers are forced to work, sometimes making consumer goods. It is considered a more lenient form of punishment because it does not carry the legal stigma of a criminal conviction and does not affect eligibility to attend university or obtain a passport to travel outside the country, Wang said.
He said attempts to reform the system over the last decade have sputtered. "It has become a tool of revenge and retaliation," said Wang.
The new Xi leadership team encouraged expectations for an overhaul in January when the party official in charge of law enforcement, Meng Jianzhu, was quoted as saying that police would stop issuing labor re-education sentences this year.
Local officials soon began saying they would limit use of the system. In February, a top legal official in Yunnan province said people would no longer be sent to labor camps on charges of threatening national security, creating a disturbance by petitioning and smearing the image of officials. Those offenses are also covered in the criminal code.
Opposition to labor re-education has been solidified by several high-profile cases, like Zhao's, publicized by state-controlled media.
Last year, a woman in central Hunan province was sentenced to 18 months for causing a disturbance after she repeatedly petitioned for harsher penalties for seven men convicted of abducting, raping and prostituting her 11-year-old daughter. Tang Hui was released within days following overwhelming public opposition. Her case prompted the government's Xinhua News Agency to call for the system to "be swept into the dustbin of history."
During the annual legislative session, officials have been coy about when reforms would be made. Justice Minister Wu Aiying told reporters Thursday that the measures were being worked out. Once hammered out behind closed doors, the proposed changes would then be presented to the executive committee of the legislature, which meets every other month.
"If there should be a bill, it would definitely be accepted," said Chen Zhonglin, a law professor from Chongqing University and a former deputy to the legislature. "After all, labor re-education is a priority task for the year."