China and its Discontents

“Black Jails” a Stain on China’s Legitimacy

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Earlier last week, major news outlets in China reported that a Beijing court had, for the first time, sentenced 10 Henan provincial authorities to jail for illegally detaining petitioners who had come to Beijing to air their grievances. Many China watchers, including myself, were surprised and happy to see China move in the right direction of strengthening the rule of law and depoliticizing the judicial system. The next day, however, the news was retracted; apparently no court in Beijing had made any such ruling.

The end result was quite a disappointment, especially because this brief moment of false hope is but one in a long string of depressing incidents. The illegal detention of petitioners in ‘black jails’ has long been an acute problem in the nation’s capital. According to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, millions of people utilize the petition system in China, often because of land disputes in which local officials illegally confiscate land and then sell it to developers for a kickback. Petitioners also seek redress of grievances against a number of other issues, including environmental damage, police abuse, and even rape. Petitioners begin with the local petition office, and if that is unsuccessful, they gradually make their way up to the provincial and national level offices. It is unknown how many people make the journey to the State Bureau for Letters and Visits every year, but it is probably in the realm of 100,000 people. Once there, many of the petitioners are ‘grabbed’ by provincial authorities and imprisoned in ‘black jails,’ before being sent back to their hometowns. The Chinese government officially denies the existence of black jails.

The problem for the CCP leadership is that much of their legitimacy in the future will rest on the government’s responsiveness to the concerns of the average citizen. But provincial authorities and the judicial system have time and again failed to live up to any minimal standard of justice. It is widely understood in China that the government and the courts serve to uphold the interests of the rich and powerful. In the past few months (and as I suspect into the next few years), “rule of law” and reforming the judiciary have been buzzwords not just among Western China experts but among the Chinese elite themselves. But this case only serves to illustrate the vacuity of official promises to reform.

I hope that I am wrong. I hope Xi Jinping and the Politburo Standing Committee make concerted efforts to crack down on the egregious abuses of power among provincial and local officials, and to provide real justice for those (mainly indigent) citizens who spend a small fortune to come to Beijing to plead their cases, only to be imprisoned and turned back. But in a system in which every instrument of power, from the military, to the state, the media, and the courts, are designed to serve the political interests of the party, how could it be otherwise?

Written by Will

December 10th, 2012 at 5:48 pm