By Yining Su
Detained petitioners stand behind locked gates of a black jail in Beijing. Image credit: Reuters, via Human Rights Watch.
The central government is trying to crack down on illegal ‘black jails’ by scrapping a monthly list ranking provinces by number of petition seekers, SCMP. If you’ve ever been confused by China’s petition system and the black jails it has inadvertently spawned, we have an explainer for you.
In China, if you’ve got a problem which local authorities can’t, or refuse, to solve, you have the option of appealing directly to the central government in Beijing.
Travel to the capital is a last resort, as it must be done at your own expense.
The system traces its roots back to imperial times.
What’s this got to do with black jails?
Every month, the petition office in Beijing compiles a ranking of provinces by petition-seekers. If you’re an official at the local level and you value your career prospects, you don’t want to be high up on that list.
The ranking was meant as an incentive for local governments to perform their jobs better. Instead, it became an incentive to stop petitioners from getting to the petition office in Beijing by any means necessary.
Sometimes that means intercepting petitioners before they get to Beijing and persuading or coercing them to go home.
Sometimes, when the petitioners can’t be persuaded, or the local authorities don’t have the means to send them home, it means detaining them illegally in so-called “black jails”.
So, black jails aren’t run by the central government?
No, they are run by local and provincial officials.
That doesn’t mean that the central government is a wholly innocent party in this affair. For years, it has known about the practice of black jails. At times, it may have tacitly supported the system by tipping off local officials.
The “interceptors” can be local officials and police who travel to Beijing, but they can also be hired thugs who make their living as professional “interceptors” and black jail guards.
The “black jails” can sometimes simply be motels guarded by interceptors, but they can also be purpose-built facilities.
So they’re getting rid of the list. Will it make a difference?
Maybe. But according to He Haijun, a Changsha official in charge of petitions quoted by the SCMP, despite the fact that the ranking system has been scrapped since March, local officials are “still being evaluated by the number of petitioners”.