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'Black Jails' in China

Human Rights Challenges in China

Black Jails in China are a network of extralegal detention centers established by Chinese security forces across the People's Republic of China in recent years. They are used mainly to detain, without trial, petitioners, who travel to seek redress for grievances unresolved at the local level.

Black jails have no official or legal status, differentiating them from detention centers, the criminal arrest process, or formal sentencing to jail or labor camps. They are in wide use in Beijing, in particular, and serve as holding locations for the many petitioners who travel to the central Office of Letters and Calls to petition.

The jails were introduced to replace the Custody and Repatriation system after it was abolished in 2003 following the notorious Sun Zhigang incident.

Sun Zhigang, an employee at the Guangzhou Daqi Garment Company from Wuhan, capital city of Central China's Hubei Province, was beaten to death by eight patients at a penitentiary hospital just hours after being arrested as a vagrant for not carrying ID.

Qiao Yanqin, an employee of the hospital and the principal culprit, was given the death sentence for planning and organizing the beating.

Sun's case has triggered a major debate on the validity of the holding system and the two-decade-old Measures for Internment and Deportation of Urban Vagrants and Beggars.

The holding measures, an administrative regulation issued by the State Council in 1982, are currently the legal basis for internment and deportation by public security authorities.

The measures require urban vagrants and beggars to be housed and deported to their hometown and urge the local governments to make proper arrangements for them.

I was shocked to first discover these ‘black jails’ and that detaining citizens trying to take their local grievances to the central government is a long-practiced policy. It smacks of the remnants of Communist China and has no place in the “new China” that still lacks basic human rights.

The good news is the Chinese government may finally be coming to grips with the abusive practice. On February 5, 2013, a Beijing court sentenced 10 men to prison for illegally detaining petitioners and ordered them to pay compensation to their victims. The men, all farmers from the city of Yuzhou in central China’s Henan province, were given sentences ranging from six months to two years for intercepting and imprisoning a group of people, also from Henan, who had hoped to lodge complaints with the central government, according to the official Xinhua news agency. Three of the 10 were minors and therefore had their sentences commuted.

The court also determined that 10 of the 11 illegally detained petitioners were entitled to between 1,300 and 2,400 yuan ($208 to $385) each in lost wages, transportation and other costs, according to the news agency.

Officially, Beijing welcomes petitioners. Unofficially, according to human rights groups, it puts immense pressure on local governments to keep petitioners from getting to or staying in the city. In order to comply, local governments dispatch teams of thugs — sometimes referred to as “interceptors” — to round up Beijing-bound trouble-makers and store them in ad hoc black jails until they can be transported home, where they’re often punished or threatened.

There are additional encouraging signs that the Chinese government is serious about improving human rights. China will begin to separate suspects arrested for minor offenses from violent criminals as part of a series of proposed reforms to its detention system recently announced.The system has been under fire for months, following a series of at least 15 suspicious deaths in China's extensive system of prisons and jails this year.

It has also said it will stop handing down labor camp sentences this year under a system that allows police to lock up petitioners, government critics and others for up to four years without a trial, although details are still unclear.

China has been evolving from a purely communist to state-run capitalist society. In fairness, we should remember that the government has made significant progress during the past thirty-plus years since the death of Mae Zedong.  After Mao's death in 1976, forces within the party that opposed the Cultural Revolution, led by Deng Xiaoping, gained prominence, and most of the political, economic, and educational reforms associated with the Cultural Revolution and its excesses were abandoned by 1978.

We can only hope China continues to evolve on a human rights level while recognizing it has a long way to go to develop the systems to treat all citizens fairly and with respect. After all, it didn’t happen in the U.S. without years of struggle and abuse. Let’s hope recent steps are for real and that China is attempting to achieve the goal of freedom for all its citizens.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on April 22, 2013