Late on Tuesday evening, a Chinese human rights group posted an extraordinary report on its website: 70,000 inmates of Beijing’s “black jails” – illegal detention centers for troublesome protesters – had just been freed.
The news came just a few hours after Xi Jinping, the new leader of the ruling Communist Party, had made a speech celebrating the anniversary of China’s Constitution in which he urged that “we must firmly establish throughout society the authority of the Constitution and the law.”
Did the reported mass prisoner release signal a sea change in the Chinese government’s approach to the law, often decried by critics as cavalier to say the least?
Tracking down an address in scruffy south Beijing that the human rights group, Tianwang, had given me, I paid a visit Wednesday evening to the black jail from which Tianwang claimed the inmates had been freed. The facility, at the end of a cul-de-sac lined by hardware stores, turned out to be a nondescript, dimly lit collection of single story buildings resembling warehouses, behind a barrier manned by a couple of thugs and a uniformed security guard.
One of the guards told me it was a “repatriation center” but would say no more, pointing to a sign by the guard post reading “Private Organization, No Interview.”
Nearby I ran into Wu Guangzhou, who said he had been released from the place on Tuesday evening; he had returned in an unsuccessful attempt to retrieve a knife, which had been confiscated from him on his detention earlier on Tuesday.
Mr. Wu is a petitioner, one of countless thousands from across the country seeking redress from officials in Beijing for their myriad grievances. The local authorities they are complaining about do their best to prevent these people from making their voices heard, often sending teams of policemen and thugs to Beijing to arrest them and hold them in “black jails.”
The Beijing Municipal Jiujingzhuan Relief Service Center, where Wu said he had been held for a few hours after being picked up during a pro-Constitution demonstration on Tuesday, is a holding center, he told me. He said he had been detained there “more times than I can remember” over several years of fruitless petitioning.
“In principle, nobody is held here for more than 24 hours” after being arrested, he explained. “The local authorities send people to pick us up” and move the inmates to province-run secret detention centers elsewhere in the city, before having them escorted back to their hometowns, often with a beating for good measure.
Wu and other petitioners described the center as a collection of rooms and buildings, furnished only with plastic waiting-room seats, capable of holding several thousand people, although they said it normally holds a few hundred. Petitioners, who are divided up according to their province of origin, are fed a meal comprising two steamed buns, an egg, and a helping of pickled vegetables.
Thousand people rounded up
Shentu Dabing, another petitioner arrested at Tuesday’s demonstration in front of the national TV building, said he arrived at the facility in a convoy of about 15 buses, each holding around 50 passengers. Others arrived later he said. Wu said he had heard guards saying that more than 20 buses had brought detainees on Tuesday, suggesting that as many as 1,000 people had been rounded up that day.
At 7 p.m., Mr. Shentu recalled, “a guard came into the Zhejiang province room” where he was being held with around 300 other people “and said that nobody would be coming to pick us up so we were all free to leave.” He was not told why.
It was unclear how many inmates from other provinces were also released, but Wu said he left with the other 20 or so people being held in the Guangdong province zone.
Quite how the unexpected, and still unexplained, release of several hundred petitioners came to be reported as freedom for tens of thousands is unclear. It appears that the petitioner who reported the incident to Tianwang wildly overestimated the number of people involved.
In any event, it would seem that even as Mr. Xi was vowing on Tuesday to uphold the rule of law, as many as 1,000 Chinese citizens were being herded into a detention center that exists outside the law. As China’s new leader himself acknowledged, “there are still phenomena of lawlessness” among the country’s officials.