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.
In China’s authoritarian state, senior officials tally petitions to get a rough sense of social order around the country. A successfully filed petition — however illusory the prospect of justice — is considered a black mark on the bureaucratic record of the local officials accused of wrongdoing.
So the game, sometimes deadly, is to prevent a filing. The cat-and-mouse contest has created a sizable underground economy that enriches the interceptors, the police and those who run the city’s ad hoc detention centers.
Human rights activists and petitioners say plainclothes security officers and hired thugs grab the aggrieved off the streets and hide them in a growing constellation of unmarked detention centers. There, the activists say, the aggrieved will be insulted, roughed up and then escorted back to their home provinces. Some are held for weeks and months without charge, activists say, and in a few cases, the beatings are fatal.