Shining a light on China’s secret “Black Jails”

November 12, 2009

– Phelim Kine is an Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch. The opinions expressed are her own. –

When 15-year-old Wang Xiaomei made the long trip from Gansu province to Beijing last year, she hoped to find justice for her family. Instead, she met with abuse.

First, Wang was abducted by plainclothes Gansu officials, who imprisoned her incommunicado for two months in a “black jail”—an illegal detention facility.

Two days before her September 13, 2008 release, Wang’s captors beat her so badly they knocked out one of her teeth. Wang’s victimizers have never been brought to justice.

Worse still, Wang’s experience—which stands in stark contrast to the Chinese government’s claims of fealty to the rule of law—is not unique. A new Human Rights Watch report released today, “An Alleyway in Hell: China’s Abusive ‘Black Jails’,” exposes the routine and severe human rights abuses perpetrated against detainees in these secret facilities.

Our research shows that Wang is just one of estimated thousands of people abducted off the streets of Chinese cities and held incommunicado for weeks or months. Inside these unlawful, secret detention facilities detainees are beaten, sexually abused, deprived of food, sleep and medical care, and subject to theft, extortion and intimidation at the hands of their guards.

And, as Wang’s case shows, children aren’t spared the dangers and indignities of black jail detention. These facilities exist outside of China’s official prison system, and are often located in state-owned hotels, nursing homes and psychiatric hospitals.

The former black jail detainees we interviewed were petitioners–people from mainly rural areas who come to Beijing and other cities in search of legal redress for violations including illegal land seizures and police torture. The petitioning system, which exists in parallel to formal judicial structures, is entirely legal, and explicitly permits people to take their grievances to the highest levels of government.

So why are petitioners being treated this way? Black jails emerged in 2003 after the Chinese government abolished laws permitting the arbitrary detention of any “undesirables.” But that progress was undercut by the introduction at the local level of guidelines that limit local officials’ prospects for promotions or raises if petitioners from their areas carried on their efforts to find justice in larger cities.

What might have been intended as an incentive to make local officials deal with local grievances became an incentive for those officials to keep petitioners off the streets and invest considerable resources in achieving that goal. Plainclothes thugs commonly known as retrievers, or jiefang renyuan, locate and abduct petitioners in Beijing and other cities for bounties as high as $250 per person. Operators of black jail facilities reap daily cash payments from local governments of up to $29 per detainee, helping to perpetuate black jail abuses.

Rather than crack down on these facilities, the central Chinese government denies that they even exist. In an April 2009 Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs press conference, a MOFA official responded to a foreign correspondent’s query about black jails by insisting, “Things like this do not exist in China.”

In June 2009, the Chinese government asserted in the Outcome Report of the United Nations’ Human Rights Commission’s Universal Periodic Review of China’s human rights record that, “There are no black jails in the country.”

Such denials make a mockery of the commitment in the first-ever National Human Rights Action Plan that, “The Chinese government unswervingly pushes forward the cause of human rights in China.” The Chinese government’s credibility would be considerably enhanced by acknowledging that black jails do indeed exist, shutting them down, liberating detainees, and bringing the perpetrators to justice.

External actors also have a role to play. Many governments and international organizations fund Chinese legal reform projects, and they too should demand that the Chinese government put an end to these abuses and that their victims be fairly compensated.

No less a civil rights and legal aid luminary than U.S. President Barack Obama, who will make his first trip as President to China on November 16-18, has a golden opportunity to raise the cases of black jail detainees and explain that an independent judicial system in China is of significant consequence to U.S.-China relations.

He should also repeat to his Chinese hosts–and the Chinese people—his September 2009 message to the United Nations General Assembly: “True leadership will not be measured by the ability to muzzle dissent, or to intimidate and harass political opponents at home.”


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I don’t think I can trust what is being said here. The costs simply out-weigh what’s in it for local chinese government. Bounty and cash payment, according to you, adds up to $279 per person. Based on your claim, and I will put a number to it, of 5,000 people being detained this translates into a cost of up to $1.4million. Assume the official are indeed corrupt enough, which is your underlying assumption, they could easily pocket this $1.4m rather than fighting for the prospects of promotions or increases. I don’t know about you but I would definitely prefer $1.4m over a payrise or promotion, which I may or may not get.

Posted by JP | Report as abusive

China is governed by a fat overfed two headed Dragon with one mighty sting in it’s tail. This Dragon breaths fire whenever it feels cornered in any way or threatened by anyone. This Dragon is fed by both greed and power, both in equal proportions. When recently a rare and ancient Seal from one of the Emperors was sold at Auction here in the west the Dragon raised one of it’s heads and roared loudly that the ancient treasures of China belong to the people (Oooops did I say people?) and must be returned to China as part of the national heritage. But then just wait a minute….. What happened to the last Emperor? Or is that a bit of a sore point? No mater then… Perhaps Chairman Mao has left some wonderful treasures apart from his little Red book and countless millions of dead and starving people……. As for the Black Jails (that do not exsist) they are a further wound that festers on the body of this mighty Dragon who continues to roar and proclaim it’s undying love for it’s people along with outrage at the suggestion that such prisons are allowed to operate in China.The bottom line?…..We here in the west are too far removed from Chinese social politics to even know about these murderous establisments let alone care about them. We keep an eye open on the Dragons military activities and will step on one of it’s claws once in a while if it gets out of hand, but otherwise we do not wish our own cosy , quiet life to be disturbed by the Dragons blanket of terror with which it aims to control it’s people (servants).And yet it really does make ones blood boil when one comes face to face with the sufferings of the innocents!!!

Posted by Peter Schwarz | Report as abusive

This article doesn’t consider the factional/bureaucratic divisions of the central government. This problem obviously requires more than casual scrutiny.”What might have been intended as an incentive to make local officials deal with local grievances became an incentive for those officials to keep petitioners off the streets”So the central government does intend to deal with local grievances, but somehow this results in these Black Jails and clear obfuscation of grievances by provincial officials? And this all goes on close to, even in, the center of power, Beijing… How?!?!?Are provincial officials colluding with municipal officials in BJ under the nose of the central government? Why are the central gov unable/unwilling to stop this if that is their professed intention to allow people to air grievances? It just doesn’t hang together… I remember the word ‘research’ was mentioned in the article: some more details might answer these questions. The government of china is not a monolith: who among them is REALLY in charge of the Black Jails?

Posted by SalmonFish | Report as abusive

People keep forgetting the truth about the Red Panda.It might present a friendly face to visitors. And it might try to present a non-threatening image to neighbours.But at the end of the day, it is still a bear. No different to the defunct Soviet allies it outlasted.

Posted by Anon | Report as abusive

I am not sure whether these ‘black jails’ exist, although the Human Rights agenda within the country does raise a few questions. I do believe however, the US nor the world really have a right to tell China how to run its political or economic system. Every major western country has its own problems, and are not short of issues to address by its government or even human rights groups (ie Guantanamo Bay. For a country with a population of over 1.4 billion, control is no easy task! I personally know a lot of Chinese people, from little villages to large cities, and all agree that their lives have improved immensely over the past 20 years. Poverty used to be very prevalent in the small rural villages and although still exist, is on a much smaller scale and magnitude. Again corruption does exist but this is also on the decline. (Please note corruption is rife everywhere, including here in the UK – just look at our MP’s expenses!) Hence I do believe that the PRC government are moving in the right direction….albeit will take more than a few years to get to an optimal state. As for it being a bear and being compared to the Soviet, well thats goes to show how much in denial some people are to the strengths and future of this soon to be superpower.

Posted by Anon | Report as abusive

You are quite right when you say that China will soon be a superpower. Yet she will be a superpower that we in the west will not choose to emulate.

Posted by Peter Schwarz | Report as abusive

“As for it being a bear and being compared to the Soviet, well thats goes to show how much in denial some people are to the strengths and future of this soon to be superpower.”Friendly facts for those in denial:-China’s economy is only as large as a quarter of the American economy, a fifth of Europe’s economy, and about an eighth of the Western economies combined.-Taking into account China’s massive population, it is one of the poorest nations on earth. On a basis of GDP per Capita, it is ranked between Jordan and the Republic of Congo.-China’s economy is based on one thing. The Chinese manipulation of the Yuan. Without exploiting their own currancy, workforce and the international currency market, China would have no advantage in trade at all.-The West will enter a trade dispute with China, long before it ever becomes a superpower. When the West decides it will no longer tolerate China’s artificially low export prices, China’s wealth will end the very same week.-If China doesn’t increase its level of economic growth, it will soon collapse. Social backlash against its repression, corruption, censorship and poverty are on the increase. And while having an uneducated or brainwashed population might slow down the trend, it can’t last forever.

Posted by Anon | Report as abusive

Well Well, you sure paint a gloomy picture for the future of China. I can but hope that not all your predictions will bear fruit. China could I believe become quite a brilliant country that at the moment is badly hindered by sick mentality on the part of the leadership. These people are living back in the medievil times and can not or are unwilling to see the consequences of a head of state staying in office for life?? Or at worst, passing the leadership on to a memeber of the leaders own family.In my view changes at the top will ripple down the line until the effects are felt right at the bottom of the ladder. A change of government could offer china a whole new lease of life, a breath of fresh air even and provide stimulus for real social and ecconomic growth from which not just a few but the many may benefit. But for a leader to think or even imagine that they will remain leader until the day they die, is very worrying indeed. Chaiman Mao thought in the same way, and we all know what he left behind (bless him).

Posted by Peter Schwarz | Report as abusive

I think more of these sort of things are actually needed. I realise I will be in the minority but genuinely believe that turning a blind eye is what is required. I know the black jails is extreme and am not condoning them but do feel that if we had a stronger govnt in the uk and secret police or whatever you want to call them existed then a lot of our problems eg illegal immigrants, gypsies colonosing areas, etc would diminish drastically. Human rights? I think a lot of the hr people have actually gone too far and the whole issue is now a joke. I could list loads of egs as to stupidity in the uk over hr stopping convictions or preventing real justice but people are way too tied up in this for all the wrong reasons and with the wrong outcomes. We live in a harsh world now and people need to wake up to reality!!

Posted by Andy M | Report as abusive

I agree with Anons’ statements, it seems to speak in forked tongue though. How can we make such a serious speculation based on such a small sample ? If I understood the Obama address in the Town Hall this morning correctly, there is too much Internet activity to allow such conduct to go unrecorded.

Posted by Casper | Report as abusive

The soon to collapse China is hiring U.S. business school graduates faster then the U.S.. Economic growth is greater than the U.S. China is also on the verge of divesting in U.S. Treasuries. China built her economy by exporting chiefly to the U.S. That demand for her products has been devastated from our own economic collapse.The U.S. has been slow to acknowledge the business practices of our financial sector was the cause of the global economic catastrophe we all endure. It is evident many journalists and bloggers are in denial regarding this truth. At the end of the day unfettered unrestrained capitalism can no longer prevail. Resources are no longer abundant. Prices of raw materials have become unstable. There are no new markets presently that can be exploited. This fact has been one of the underlying factors in the labor market collapses. Goods and services are being priced out of reach.Human societies are going to have to seriously rethink how they conduct commerce and other economic activities. A degraded environment will severely impact economic activity. Often leading to complete collapse. This is the very situation humanity finds itself in right now. The plight of the Rapanui on Easter Island is a sobering reminder.

Posted by Anubis | Report as abusive

The Chinese Communist Party is both the solution and the problem for China. Let’s be honest here, it would be impossible for a democratic party to govern so many people in a country out of poverty. Let’s look at India and Thailand as an example, both developing countries with democratic governments, both rife with corruption, while India has insanely bad infrastructure and Thailand citizens live in fear of terrorism.However, the CCP is not perfect in any way. Yes, it is very corrupt, which poses a serious threat to the country itself, and the secret police protects the corrupted. China also doesn’t have any policy to protect the poor while the rich gets even richer, widening the rich-poor gap. But without such an iron-fisted state control, China will be faced with terrorism issues and civilian unrest, with possibility of the country falling apart, bringing more people into poverty. While what are nations with good Human Rights records going to do? I’m guessing something around the lines of “oh, well, China and its people are in deep sh*t, but they have good Human Rights records”. Ok, I know, this scenario seem to be too pessimistic, but it is certainly a possibility.

Posted by Noobface | Report as abusive

It’s interesting to hear so much Western expert opinion on how not to run the People’s Republic of China, and possibly Russia too. We may be off to a good start here…Here’s my opinion: wherever Black Jails exist, they’re wrong. No ifs ands or buts.Meanwhile, whenever the words “black” and “jail” are used in close proximity with one another, the United States judicial and penal systems immediately spring to mind. This isn’t as it should be, not in any freedom-loving nation. China’s important too but, as they used to say in the West, first things first.I defer to the late William Kunstler for an expert opinion here:”I suspect,” so Kunstler, talking to a crowd during the Chicago 8 trial, “[more people] have gone to their deaths through a legal system than through all the illegalities in the history of man: 6 million people in Europe during the Third Reich. Legal. Sacco and Vanzetti. Legal. The hundreds of great trials throughout the South where black men were condemned to death. All legal. Jesus. Legal. Socrates. Legal. All tyrants learn that it is far better to do this thing through some semblance of legality than to do it without that pretense.”Lessons for everyone here. Get yours while it’s going, line forms to the right. You too, China…

Posted by The Bell | Report as abusive

It always never cease to amaze me what is reported on China. I live in a huge community of chinese people born and bred out of China. How is it that none of our relatives and friend’s relatives are subjected to what is being read above.I agree with Anon Human Rights Watch Agenda in China does raise a few questions.Back to the topic of my relatives. Their lives are improving every day. People leaving China are going back. Does that not say something

Posted by getreal | Report as abusive

No matter how many US Treasury Bonds they hold; no matter how many (empty) skyscrapers they build; no matter how many “engineers” (read auto mechanics) they graduate; no matter how many unverifiable and unaudited statistics they release; China will never find respect amongst the developed countries of the world while its current political system remains in place.

Posted by ShaMao | Report as abusive

Let us not forget everyone the U.S. runs “Black Jails” too. Iraq, Afghanistan, Cuba and all the little hidden CIA torture sites. Have we any room at all to comment?

Posted by Anubis | Report as abusive

That depends, Anubis.Imagine that you are in America. You complain about government policy in America, or take part in an American democratic protest, or make a complaint about alleged improper conduct by an American public official.Are you then likely to end up being tortured by police and ending up being locked away in Cuba for the next fifteen years? And having your family put in home detention as well? Or having your brother, who tries to take your case to court, put in an asylum for being ‘mentally unsound’? Of course not.So yes, we have much room to comment.

Posted by Anon | Report as abusive