BEIJING — The former prisoner runs a dirt-stained hand over a scar on his forehead and recalls the pain of near-daily whippings by police guards at the Fuxin Reeducation Through Labor facility in northeast China.
"Since we didn't get enough to eat and the work they forced us to do was so hard, we'd collapse, leading to a bad beating," said Liu Jun, 36. "It was also a way for the police to remind you that bribing them would give you less work and more food.
"They enjoyed hurting you so much, sometimes we'd dream of killing them."
Liu said his only crime was having the same name as a criminal; local police served as both judge and jury.
For 50 years, China's Mao-era reeducation through labor, or laojiao, program has allowed police to sentence petty criminals or anyone they consider troublemakers to as many as four years of incarceration without trial. China's parliament will consider reforming or abolishing the system during its annual session, which begins today, the state-run English-language China Daily said last week.
Real power in China is held by a small group of Politburo members, but the National People's Congress provides insights into their thinking. Other items on the agenda for the 12-day session include measures to protect private property, end preferential treatment for foreign firms and reduce the budget deficit. Debates are expected on issues such as corruption, pollution and easing rural poverty.
The United Nations, Western governments and human rights groups as well as China's Supreme People's Court have roundly criticized the laojiao system. Domestic legal experts argue that it's unconstitutional. And the imprisonment of an estimated 200,000 people in such a manner is an embarrassment as Beijing tries to burnish its image as host of the 2008 Olympics.
But getting rid of the entrenched system isn't proving to be easy.
Lined up against its many critics is one major supporter. But in China's single-party state, it's a bruiser: the police.
The Ministry of Public Security's argument resonates among the country's top leaders: How do you expect us to safeguard your power in an era of growing unrest if you require us to follow the niceties of judicial process?
"They like its flexibility, allowing them to take large numbers of people off the street very quickly," said Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based China researcher with Human Rights Watch.
Some human rights activists see this struggle as evidence that Chinese authorities know they must edge toward rule of law, but don't quite know how to get there. Others regard it as a clunky attempt at spin.
English-language newspapers such as the China Daily and Hong Kong's South China Morning Post have run stories on the proposed reforms. However, virtually all state-run Chinese-language papers, media normally used to prepare the public for significant policy shifts, have remained silent.
Legal experts say draft reforms include reducing the maximum sentence to one year, better defining the appeal process, removing the high walls and electrified barriers often found around these facilities and placing greater emphasis on rehabilitation.
Still lacking is any clear evidence the program will fall under judicial control.
"It appears the Chinese government is trying to have its cake and eat it too," said Robin Munro, research director with the Hong Kong-based China Labor Bulletin.
Even as police have fought encroachment on a system that lets them do what they want behind high walls, experts say, they are also in a bind.
Social problems such as drug addiction, prostitution and juvenile offenses treated abroad with specialty courts, misdemeanor charges or rehabilitation centers have landed in the laojiao system. Shuttering it overnight could leave a vacuum.
The system should be abolished, said Wu Ge, a law professor with the Constitution and Human Rights Center at Qinghua University. "The question is what can replace it, and what to do with its current occupants."
For others, the issue is simpler. "These are essentially unmonitored sweatshops," said Sara Davis, executive director of Asia Catalyst, a New York-based civic group.
"When a petitioner tries to publicize a local scandal, someone upsets their superiors, someone is unhappy with corruption, that's been enough to land them in a laojiao facility," said Hu Xingdou, an economics professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology.
Set up to handle petty thieves, fraudsters, counterrevolutionaries and "social parasites" not covered under criminal law, the laojiao system saw its peak use soon after it was established. But authorities also have used it to suppress unrest and imprison political rivals, as well as democracy protesters after the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, members of religious groups and those who resisted the one-child policy.
Liu said he was incarcerated in Liaoning province for having the wrong name.