SHANGHAI: China is looking at closing its network of labour camps, allowing an unprecedented public debate over the controversial program.

Since the 1950s, China has used ''re-education through labour'' to imprison people without trial.

There are an estimated 300,000 prisoners undergoing re-education through labour in about 310 camps, according to China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong non-government organisation.

The camps were originally used in Chairman Mao's era to lock away so-called rightists, counter-revolutionaries and landlords.

While 5 to 10 per cent of the detainees today are political prisoners, the camps are now more commonly used to house drug addicts, street hawkers, prostitutes and pickpockets. Inmates can be imprisoned for up to four years.

The United Nations has called for the camps to be abolished a number of times and it appeared as if the Chinese government would close them in 2007, but they remained in force.

Camp inmates interviewed by China Human Rights Defenders, another non-government organisation in Hong Kong, said they had been shackled upside down, electrocuted and forced to work when sick.

''We worked between 14 and 15 hours every day, and aside from time for eating we did not stop until after 9pm,'' one prisoner told the group.

In another case, a prisoner was allegedly forced to work while suffering from a severe infection and died weighing just 35 kilograms.

The multiple abuses at the labour camps have led to an unprecedented open debate in the Beijing News, a government-owned newspaper, about whether they should be closed.

Yu Jianrong, a liberal legal scholar and a key adviser to the Chinese government, wrote in an editorial that it was important for China to ''advance with the times''.

''The system has already seen its day,'' he wrote.

From its establishment until before the Cultural Revolution, re-education through labour was 'a tool of political struggle'.

''After reform and opening, it became a 'method of social management'.

''But its fundamental nature has not changed.

''It is still a method of social control outside of judicial procedure.''

However, Mr Yu's views were opposed by Jiang Ming'an, a professor of law at Peking University, who said it was essential that China retain a system where small-time troublemakers could be punished without recourse to the courts.

Likening the labour camps to a bottle of medicine, he said that while the medicine could be changed, the bottle should be retained.

Telegraph, London