BEIJING — In August, Ma Liangfu and the more than 100 other inmates at the Tumuji Reeducation Through Labor Camp in Inner Mongolia received good news: China was abolishing its much-criticized network of detention facilities, known as laojiao, where people have been imprisoned without trial for up to four years.
Police sent Ma to the camp in April 2012 and he was forced to work long hours growing tomatoes, cucumbers and cabbage. His offenses? Establishing an anticorruption group, handing out fliers at a Beijing railway station, and helping others to petition the government over grievances such as land disputes.
In the fields, Ma said, he toiled alongside petty thieves, drug addicts, members of the banned spiritual group Falun Gong and hardened criminals who had paid bribes to be transferred out of prison, thinking life at the camp would be easier.
"But there is a saying in Tumuji: 'I'd rather go to prison for three years than spend one year in laojiao,' " recalled Ma, 54, who said he was the last of 108 inmates freed from the camp in the city of Ulan Hot when he left Dec. 22, four months before his two-year term was to end. "Everything I saw in there is very dark, mentally speaking…. It's a very unhealthy environment."
China's government announced in November that it was shutting down the camps, which date to the 1950s, in an effort to better "protect human rights and improve the legal system."
Over the years, officials said, laojiao helped to safeguard public security, maintain social stability and correct illegal behavior, but now "the historical mission ... has been completed."
Exactly how many inmates were released and from how many camps remains unclear; the government has not given out numbers. Human Rights Watch estimates that 160,000 people were being held at about 260 laojiao camps before the abolition; other researchers put the number of detainees at more than 300,000.
Activists, researchers and former detainees acknowledge that many thousands have been freed but believe that certain categories of people –- particularly Falun Gong adherents and drug offenders — may have been transferred to other shadowy facilities or kept at labor camps now converted into drug treatment centers.
While applauding the formal dismantling of the camps, activists and lawyers say they're watching closely to see whether authorities seek to fill the void.
"Theoretically, if there is one less law that can be abused, it's a good thing," said Li Jinglin, Ma's attorney. "In reality, there are still all kinds of ways that can be used to restrict people's freedom. They can always come up with new methods."
Chinese security forces still can detain people in mental hospitals, drug rehabilitation facilities, "legal study centers" and secret "black jails." All have been used in recent years to confine perceived troublemakers without bringing formal charges.
Public pressure to end laojiao had been building for years, driven by a series of high-profile cases including that of Tang Hui, a woman sent to a camp after lobbying for harsher punishment for those found guilty of raping her daughter. She later sued local authorities and won.
Huang Qi, an activist who helps people petition the government, said authorities were ignoring more small "disturbing the peace" infractions by petitioners and steering others to the court system.
"If a year ago 100 people were facing various punishments [related to] petitioning, now only 20 of them are," he said.
Corinna-Barbara Francis, a China researcher at Amnesty International, said a formal court hearing would be a preferred route for some because authorities would have to offer greater proof of a crime.
"But the question is, can the courts increase their capacity to handle more cases, and can they function more independently?" said Francis, who released an extensive report on the labor camps in November. "Part of the reason there are so many petitioners is that the courts have difficulty going against local power brokers."
For some, Francis said, formal court proceedings might mean even longer sentences than the maximum four-year terms in labor camps that were permitted without trial.
"For Falun Gong members, courts are not an improvement; the sentences can be extremely long, 10 to 12 years, which is much worse," Francis said.
Chinese authorities have been vague about how they intend to deal with many of the cases that previously would have gone into the labor camp system. Besides increasing the number of drug-rehab centers, they also have said they intend to expand "community corrections" programs.
The latter could include requiring offenders to report regularly to drop-in centers and have their communications monitored.
"It's unclear if people will be monitored at their homes, or if there will be facilities where people will be held. And who is doing the monitoring?" Francis said.
Phelim Kine, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, said that when China abolished another extrajudicial detention system known as "custody and repatriation" in 2003, it helped fuel the rise of the "black jail" network.
Harry Wu, who runs the Washington-based Laogai Research Center, which examines human rights issues in China, said the government is unlikely to do away with all arbitrary detentions. The state's ability to detain individuals without presenting evidence of criminal wrongdoing helps "preserve and project the immense power of the public security apparatus," he said.
Meaningful reform would require overcoming "overwhelming resistance" from entrenched power at the central, provincial and local level, he added.
Though there has been no drive to compensate or otherwise apologize en masse to former laojiao inmates, even state-run television has acknowledged abuses perpetrated under the system.
"We sincerely hope the progress of China's legal system will result in less collateral damage in the future," CCTV said in a commentary. "We hope the sad stories of those individuals will not repeat themselves again."
Li, Ma's lawyer, noted that even legal procedures — such as arresting people on formal charges, holding them for a period, and then releasing them "on bail" — could still be used to harass and intimidate people doing things authorities don't like.
That's what Zhang Jixing, 60, says happened to her. She was arrested in Beijing in May on charges of creating a public disturbance after she tried to organize a protest against authorities in Jilin province.
She was held in jail for 38 days before authorities told her she was being released on bail, although no one actually posted collateral. She would need to come back in three months, they told her, but since then she hasn't heard from them. That's a relief, she said, but it's also nerve-racking, since she doesn't know whether the case will be revived.
"Maybe they thought of sending me to a labor camp but couldn't because they were abolishing the system," she said. "It's good they shut down the camps. But since doing so, they are using criminal charges against petitioners to hold them, and it's also abusive. Take my case: I think they knew the charges were flimsy so they haven't pursued it, but I was still held 38 days."
Tommy Yang of The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times