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Andrea Harner
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March 9, 2009

Seeking Justice, Chinese Land in Secret Jails By Andrew Jacobs, NY Times. China angers me so much series.

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They are often tucked away in the rough-and-tumble sections of the city’s south side, hidden beneath dingy hotels and guarded by men in dark coats. Known as “black houses,” they are unofficial jails for the pesky hordes of petitioners who flock to the capital seeking justice.

This month, Wang Shixiang, a 48-year-old businessman from Heilongjong Province, came to Beijing to agitate for the prosecution of corrupt policemen. Instead, he was seized and confined to a dank room underneath the Juyuan Hotel with 40 other abducted petitioners.

During his two days in captivity, Mr. Wang said, he was beaten and deprived of food, and then bundled onto an overnight train. Guards who were paid with government money, he said, made sure he arrived at his front door.

As Beijing hosts 10 days of political pageantry known as the National People’s Congress, tens of thousands of desperate citizens are trying to seek redress by lodging formal complaints at petition offices. A few, when hope is lost, go to extremes, as a couple from the Xinjiang region did in late February: they set their car afire on the city’s best-known shopping street, injuring themselves critically.

In his annual report to the legislature on Thursday, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao said China should use its petition system to head off social unrest in the face of a worsening economy. “We should improve the mechanism to resolve social conflicts, and guide the public to express their requests and interests through legal channels,” he said.

According to the state media, 10 million petitions have been filed in the last five years on complaints as diverse as illegal land seizures and unpaid wages. The numbers would be far higher but for the black houses, also called black jails, the newest weapon local officials use to prevent these aggrieved citizens from embarrassing them in front of central government superiors. Officially, these jails do not exist.

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