BEIJING — In a rare dose of candor that contradicts past official statements, a state-run magazine has published an article that details a secret network of detention centers used to prevent aggrieved citizens from lodging complaints against the Chinese government.
Liaowang, or Outlook, a dependably stodgy publication aimed at Communist Party bureaucrats and policy makers, ran an exposé on Tuesday laying out the Byzantine network of interceptors, guards and holding pens used to put off the petitioners who flock to Beijing in the hope that the authorities will resolve longstanding grievances, many of them involving official corruption in their hometowns.
According to the report, which was also published online by the official Xinhua news agency, those grabbed off the street often have their cellphones and identification confiscated before being locked away in guesthouses or dank basements. After being held for days or weeks, inadequately fed and sometimes beaten, they are shipped back to their home provinces with the admonition that they stay away from the capital.
At peak times, the article said, as many as 10,000 retrievers — those paid by local officials to keep petitioners from successfully filing their complaints — roam Beijing in search of quarry. The report counted 73 secret detention centers, many of them run by regional governments, and laid out in detail the lucrative business of retrieving, detaining and sending home petitioners. The magazine described it as a “chain of gray industry.”
Such a system of extralegal detention, sometimes called black jails, “damages the legitimate rights of petitioners and seriously damages the government’s image,” the article said.
Although the right to petition the authorities is enshrined in the Constitution, that right is frequently swallowed up by the reality of contemporary China’s system of governance: local officials, facing pressure to maintain social stability, are penalized for allowing too many complainants to find their way to the offices of the central government.
The article in Outlook comes less than two weeks after Human Rights Watch issued a report documenting China’s network of secret jails — a report that prompted a Foreign Ministry spokesman to deny their existence. “There are no black jails in China,” Qin Gang, the spokesman, said when asked about the report. “If citizens have complaints and suggestions about government work, they can convey them to the relevant authorities through legitimate and normal channels.”
Given the government’s tight control of the media, human rights advocates expressed guarded optimism that the article might signal a shift away from official tolerance for the jails, which are thought to have existed since 2005.
“The fact that the report focuses on the issue in a substantive and detailed way gives us hope that the Chinese government might end its longtime denial of the existence of black jails and move toward closing them down, liberating the detainees and bringing the perpetrators to justice,” said Phelim Kine, a Hong Kong-based researcher with Human Rights Watch.