Chinese Black Jails: ‘An Alleyway In Hell’? – Analysis


By Namrata Hasija

The Chinese petition system is nearly 3000 years old. The citizens can complain against the corrupt provincial officials directly to Beijing. The tradition still continues wherein complaints ignored by provincial officials can be taken to Beijing especially during the annual meeting of the Chinese parliament. However, the provincial governments try to stop petitioners from reaching Beijing because if a lot of complaints come from an area the local officials are penalized for the same. In this context the article probes what are black jails and how do these jails operate in China? Is the central government a part of this arrangement and if not then what are the efforts being made by them to eradicate them in line with official policy?

What are Black Jails?


Chinese officials have never openly admitted the existence of these jails. The attempt by the provincial government to stop petitioners from reaching the higher authorities is driven by the fact that the promotions in the party ladder are given to officials for their good work in their provinces and such instances do not reflect well for their records. Moreover, in 2003 official detention centers were closed down after the residency requirements or the hukou rules were loosened. This is how the ‘black jails’ originated as the local governments started hiring private firms to stop people from traveling to Beijing with their complaints against the injustices in their areas.

A Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang even denied the existence of these jails at a recent press conference stating “I can assure you that there are no so-called black jails in China.” However the Chinese state-run and international media often reports their existence. The Human Rights Watch released a 53 page report in 2009 -“An Alleyway to Hell”- which documented the growing trend of detaining petitioners in Beijing through private security companies. It highlighted the severe violation of human rights in China through these detentions. The debate has been reinvigorated after a recent incident in September, where a tourist mistaken as a petitioner was taken into detention and brutally assaulted.

These black jails are illegal detention centers generally operated out of state-run hotels, nursing homes or psychiatric hospitals and are targeted at petitioners- critics and dissidents coming to Beijing and subjected frequently to sever torture and deprivations. Even minors are detained in these jails and many reports have highlighted cases of rape within these jails. Though many private security companies are registered, due to the huge sums of money involved many illegal detention centers have come up. The local governments pay approximately US$ 29 per person to the operators of these black jails and a recent illegal detention center uncovered was being paid by five local authorities. The whole nexus serves the central government as well and that is why no major actions to stop these illegal detentions have been undertaken by the Chinese state.

Regulations and Impact

Though their presence has never been acknowledged publicly in China, some recent incidents and the reporting from the international and Chinese media have forced the Chinese state to take some action. There have been a few crackdowns on the illegal detention centers and officials who mistook a tourist as a petitioner were also reprimanded. The Chinese government has issued a new regulation wherein officials from Beijing will go to provinces and address the cases so the petitioners do not have to travel to center. The petitioners can also file a complaint online and a response is supposed to be given within sixty days. The officials in provinces have also been asked to keep one day aside every month for hearing the local petitions so as to ease out the pressure on the legal officials and petitioners too.

However, the paradox here is that on the one hand the Chinese government is trying to eradicate the ‘non-existent’ black jails and on the other hand it is planning to amend its criminal laws next year to legitimize extra-judicial detentions for up to 6 months. Also the officials were punished for mistaking a tourist as a petitioner and not for arresting petitioners illegally. The imprisonment of government critics like Ai Weiwei for 81 days at an undisclosed location raises further questions about the seriousness of the Chinese government to shut down the black jails. Thus, a total crackdown of the black jails will be difficult to control in Beijing as the central government seems to be passing contradictory regulations and also remains silent on their existence. This might result in the continuance of human rights violation in China and also the new regulation legalizing extra judicial detentions will further strengthen the already out of control domestic security authorities.

Namrata Hasija
Research Officer, CRP, IPCS
email: [email protected]


IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *