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KUNMING, China (Reuters) - Li Zhongying was freed from a Chinese labor camp ahead of schedule in September because, guards told her, the government was scrapping 're-education through labor', a heavily criticized penal system created in the 1950s.
Several hundred other inmates were not so lucky, she said. Like Li, they were held without trial and forced to do factory work under what she called "cruel" conditions. They remained because they were drug offenders, she told Reuters.
Many of China's re-education through labor camps, instead of being abolished in line with a ruling Communist Party announcement this month, are being turned into compulsory drug rehabilitation centers where inmates can be incarcerated for two years or more without trial.
Human rights activists and freed inmates said drug offenders were still being forced to do factory work, as has been the practice under the re-education through labor system, colloquially known as 'laojiao'.
New York-based Human Rights Watch estimates more than 60 percent of the 160,000 people in labor camps at the start of the year were there for drug offenses. Those people were unlikely to see any change in their treatment, it said.
"The drug detox people are doing exactly the same work," said Li, who spent 19 months in a labor camp in Kunming, the capital of southern Yunnan province.
Police caught Li in Beijing early last year trying to petition the government over a grievance that dated back to the mid-1990s. They sent her home to Yunnan, where she was sentenced without trial to 21 months.
Li, speaking from Beijing, said she worked at a biscuit factory inside the camp for up to 15 hours a day.
A production line manager, speaking to Reuters outside the facility on a dusty road near Kunming airport late last week, said the inmates left inside were undergoing drug rehab. Among the items they made were handicrafts, including embroidered items, said the manager, declining to be identified.
China's re-education through labor law, in place since 1957, empowered police to detain petty criminals for up to four years without trial.
Many of the camps have housed drug rehab centers since mid-2008, when a new Anti-Drug Law came into force. Police can sentence drug offenders without trial to two years or more of compulsory rehabilitation, which can include forced labor, according to the law.
Labor camps across China began changing their names to drug centers earlier this year, after a surprise announcement in January from Public Security Minister Meng Jianzhu that the network of 350 camps would be scrapped.
They also took it as a cue to start releasing some people who were there for non-drug offences. The camps also hold petty criminals, prostitutes, petitioners and members of the banned spiritual group Falun Gong, rights activists say.
Government websites and state media have reported steps to change the names of camps to drug rehab centers or to re-train staff this year in provinces including Guangdong, Hainan, Henan, Jiangsu, Jilin, Liaoning, Sichuan, Yunnan and Zhejiang, as well as in Shanghai and Beijing.
The Communist Party's policymaking Central Committee announced the formal abolition of the re-education through labor camp system this month as part of a series of sweeping societal and economic reforms.
Nicholas Bequelin, senior Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, said he believed the "great majority" of forced labor camps would keep functioning as drug rehab centers.
The shift did not represent a change of "direction or principles" on the part of the party, added Jiang Tianyong, a human rights lawyer in Beijing.
"It's wrong to say it has no meaning, but it's too optimistic to think it will change a lot," he said.
"This is how power in this country operates ... They can't use re-education through labor camps to control people, so they just change the name and control people."
Rights groups have said conditions in labor camps are terrible and that detainees frequently had to do hard labor with minimal health and safety precautions.
Despite long-standing international criticism of the camps, many Chinese are largely oblivious to them because many of those who are locked up are poor and on the fringes of society.
The party this month said it saw the scrapping of the re-education through labor regime as an improvement to the justice system that would help it regain credibility with the populace and better protect human rights.
Neither the Public Security Ministry nor the Justice Ministry responded to questions from Reuters about the transformation of the camps into drug rehab centers.
In Shanghai, shiny metal characters saying "Shanghai No.4 Re-education Through Labor Facility" still adorn the gate, but the last inmates were released months ago and the compound is now a drug rehab centre, said a guard at the facility.
"The official documents, everything, has already been changed," said the guard, who did not give his name.
On September 14, Su Yuhong left the Masanjia forced labor camp in northern Liaoning province.
Masanjia made international headlines last year when a woman in the U.S. state of Oregon found a note in a Halloween decoration kit from Kmart that was supposedly written by a camp inmate who claimed to have played a part in making the product.
"Only the drug addicts were left," Su said by telephone from the city of Shenyang, where she now lives.
By mid-June, the 21st Century Business Herald newspaper quoted Justice Ministry researcher Wang Gongyi as saying there were only 50,000 labor camp inmates left in the country, compared with hundreds of thousands in compulsory drug rehab centers.
Beyond drug centers, Chinese authorities still have many ways to detain people without trial, rights activists said.
Police can detain sex workers, for example, under a mechanism known as "custody and education".
The terminology even appears to be interchangeable.
An article in July on the Public Security Ministry website said prostitutes in Zhejiang province had been sentenced to "re-education through labor at a custody and education facility".
Jiang, the lawyer, said police had used other means to curtail the freedom of some, including Falun Gong adherents and repeat petitioners.
The number of court convictions of such people was on the rise, as was the use of 'rule of law study classes', which amounted to unlawful detention, he said.
"So long as (the authorities) feel a need to maintain stability, simply abolishing laojiao will not solve the problem," he said.
Additional reporting by Hui Li in BEIJING. Editing by Dean Yates