The Qing dynasty, which ruled China from 1644 to 1911, had a system in place whereby an aggrieved person could seek redress of his/her grievances against the local government officials at the respective provincial capital or, as the case may permit, in Beijing. This monarchical rule was aimed to dispense justice to the rural and sub-urban masses, who were staying away from the capital city.
After the revolution in 1949, The communist party too retained this system more or less with little alterations. This system is called the "Petitioning".
From 1982 to 2003, the "Custody and Repatriation system" was in place. Under this system, the police could detain people if they did not have the residence permit (hukou) or temporary living permit (zanzhuzheng). They were later repatriated to the place where they could legally stay and work.
However, this law led to severe misuse whereby police started detaining indiscriminately and also resorted to torture. However, the notorious Sun Zhigang incident led the Chinese government to abolish this system in 2003.
The abolition of the erstwhile "Custody and Repatriation system" led the local government officials to think of other ways to arrest people who were flooding the cities to petition against the atrocious abuses of power by the local government officials to the higher levels of government. The victims were generally seeking justice for illegal land grabs, police torture, government corruption et al.
The setup in China imposes bureaucratic penalties on local officials when there is a vast inflow of petitions from their areas. To check these complaints reaching the top officials, the provincial leaders, colluding with some hired agents (called jiefang renyuan) had people coming to cities arrested under the "Custody and Repatriation system". However, as this system was subsequently abolished in 2003, the local government did not possess any garb to detain the petitioners (called shangfangzhe).
Continuous inflow of petitioners from an area leads to demerit the career of the concerned provincial official and moreover, the fangs of the omnipresent devil called 'Corruption' has beset the lives of the rural people, who are also more willing to petition as they find this as the only way to redress these issues. Violations of basic human rights are commonplace in several provinces. Justice is hard to come by as the local courts, the so-called dispenser of justice, are under the control of the very officials the complaints are made against. The legal system is also quite expensive for the common rural Chinese people. Thus, petitioning has become the only way for redressal for the masses.
Petitioners are required to submit their complaints to the "Office of Letters and calls" in Beijing or in other branches in the provinces. However, the agencies contracted by the provincial officials to arrest these people, have their agents all over the city & arrest any person who has come to submit his/her petition. The rural plaintiffs are generally easy to identify from the local residents as they always remain in distinctive groups. They are then arrested and sent to the "Black Jails."
The word "black" here does not signify darkness, but the illicit nature of this whole business. The local officials, with the connivance of the security authorities in cities, establish the black jails to ensure that the petitioners are arrested, tortured and sent back to their respective places so that they can go and narrate the experience they had. This should stop further coming of other aggrieved petitioners, or at least restrict the deluge to a minute trickle.
Thus, these jails are there to protect the incumbent officials at the county, municipal, and provincial levels from career degradation.
The black jails are quite unassuming too. They are established in schools, hostels, nursing homes, government mental hospitals and the like. The detainees are arrested, stripped of all belongings and then put through extreme physical torture. Depriving the detainees of sleep and food is the most common technique adopted by the abductors. Neither legal justification of the arrest is provided, nor is the duration for which they will be held incommunicado in these jails is informed.
20-30 people are generally made to stay in a single room. Black jail detainees are subjected to psychological abuses too. In a flagrant violation to child rights, a 15-year old girl was locked up in a black jail (ostensibly a nursing home) for petitioning for his crippled father.
Basic medical facilities are also not provided. As per Human Rights Watch,
"A 70-year-old former detainee from Hubei province resorted to a three-day hunger strike to compel her captors to allow her access to a doctor." Force-feeding drugs to petitioners is also employed.
The most well known black jail is the Beijing Ma Jialou, the official name being 'Ma Jialou Beijing Petitioners Aid Centre'.
A spike in the number of petitioners was observed during the Beijing Olympics, 2008 (as was observed for the Tibetan protestors). However, the black jail authorities curbed these flows successfully.
These extralegal black jails possess a strong organizational structure too. Once a detainee is abducted and brought in, the black jail for the particular province to which this person belonged to, is informed and the abductee is subsequently transferred to that jail.
Operators of these black jails receive 150 yuan (US$22) to 200 yuan (US$29) per person they abduct from the provincial-level official. This provides another reason among the other multifarious ones to employ this form of illegal detention methods. The payment criterion also engenders the rather obvious temptation to abduct much more rural personnel in the cities, though many may even turn out to be non-petitioners.
The black jail guards also do their part with impunity. They steal the detainees personal belongings, demand for suitable payments for the food and lodging in the black jails, and to top it all, ask for payments as high as 15,000 yuan (US$2,205) as a condition of release from these jails.
The hypocritical stance of the Chinese government becomes conspicuous once we go through their basic commitments to human rights.
In 2004, the Chinese government amended the constitution to read that, "The state respects and preserves human rights." In 2009, China presented the National Human Rights Action Plan, which among many others state that
"The Chinese government unswervingly pushes forward the cause of human rights in China."
Though information regarding these jails were published by Human Rights Watch in its 53-page report aptly titled "An alleyway in hell" in 2009, and also by some newspapers published in HongKong, the Chinese government has never acknowledged its presence.
In June 2009, the Chinese government asserted in the Outcome Report of the United Nations Human Rights Council's Universal Periodic Review of China's human rights record that, "There are no black jails in the country." Chinese officials also assertively denied the presence of any Black jails, when asked by Al-Jazeera reporters.
Why did China never acted strongly against these jails, leave along acknowledging it in the international forum?
One reason may be is as the public discontent in China being at an all-time high, an act against these jails might alienate the county, municipal, provincial government officials. The communist party requires these lower level officials to curb the sprouting dissensions.
However, China has to do some face-saving act after the publication of the reports about the black jails and even more so after the Liu Xiaobo saga (even though China managed to persuade around 20 countries to not attend the ceremony) & China has of late paid heed to the black jails & has ordered 582 of these to be stopped, although not acknowledging their presence in anyhow official manner.
In 2010, Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau officials detained Zhang Jun, chairman of "Anyuanding Security Service Company", and Zhang Jie, general manager of this company, for "illegally detaining people and illegal business operation.
In 2010 again, a guard of a black jail located in a hotel in Beijing, got 8 years of imprisonment for raping a female petitioner who had been illegally held in custody.
In order to sort out this problem of these illicit; nay, gruesome detention centres, Chinese government has to show a strong political will as this system involves a cobweb of officials, security personnel, hired goons etc. This high-money 'business' has grown even bigger and to curb it completely, some stringent actions are required.
Interestingly, a strong political will and stringent actions are the things which were never wanting in the Land of the Dragon.
Subham Ghosh is writing after a hiatus. Nevertheless, he is our first author of the new decade. And we all shower praise on him for such an enterprising piece in which he unravels something of the many things we all want and wanted to know about the mysterious and belligerent neighbour of ours.