The day after the government published a report highlighting what it says are improvements in human rights, state media are reporting that police are investigating the detention of petitioners against local and provincial governments in secret prisons — so-called “black jails”. The chairman and largest shareholder, Zhang Jun, and the general manager, Zhang Jie, of An Yuan Ding Security Service Co., a six-year-old Beijing security firm which started life as a trading company before being taken over from its founders by an investor group including Zhang, stand accused of taking money from local and provincial governments to abduct and hold people who travelled to the capital to complain about local injustices. The pair have been reportedly arrested, though it is unclear when.
According to Caijing and Southern Metropolis Daily, which first published the reports last week, the company started in 2008 to help the Beijing liaison offices of local governments to stop petitioners making it to the central government offices in Beijing where grievances are filed, employing 3,000 “interceptors” passing themselves off as special police to do so. Once trapped, would-be petitioners were then held in isolation, in some cases for more than a month, before local officials would arrange to have them escorted home.
The company denies the accusations. Yet Southern Metropolis Daily reported that in May, Shanghang County in Fujian announced that it had contracted An Yuan Ding to bring 18 female petitioners involved in an industrial pollution case back to their hometown. Caijing says the company made profits of 21 million yuan ($3 million) in 2008, mostly from its black-jail work, though being Beijing Olympics year, 2008 might have been especially fruitful for this line of business.
The existence of black jails and the practice of extra-legal forced detentions of petitioners, and in some cases their physical abuse, has been repeatedly asserted by human rights groups. The government has always denied that they exist, and certainly not turned the spotlight of publicity on accusations that they do as has happened in this case.
Local officials are penalized for grievances lodged against them, hence the motivation to prevent them getting to Beijing. Five consecutive years of a falling number of petition filings with central government shows the market at work — but not quite in the way the human rights report envisioned of improving human rights in China through greater transparency and economic reform.
Phelim Kine of Human Rights Watch, told the Agence France Press news agency that the black jails involve “a web of government officials, security forces, huge numbers of plainclothes thugs and dozens of facilities in Beijing alone.” What to watch for now is whether the Anyuanding case will be dealt with as a one-off or whether there will be a concerted crackdown on the practice. When leadership changes are in the offing, as now, there are commonly crackdowns on local government malfeasance, but for political reasons as much as anything.