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Black jails and paranoia in the heart of Beijing

or: The innocent’s guide to becoming an enemy of the state

Uniformed soldiers marching across Tiananmen Square, Beijing

Guards on patrol in Tiananmen Square, Beijing

“We are about to arrive in our nation’s great capital,” the voice on the train’s intercom announced. It was Qing Ming Festival in Beijing, as it would be for the following two days, and if we thought people would take the opportunity to spend some quality time with their families during this brief but precious holiday, how wrong we were to dismiss the appetite for sightseeing of the patriotic Chinese tour group.

We checked into our hostel and got back out on the streets with as little time wasted as possible, making our way to Tiananmen via the Disneyfied blandness of Qianmen Dajie. It would be a day of mistrust and paranoia on both sides of the lens, as the apparatus of the state went into overdrive under the gaze of Mr Mao. But before I had the chance to feel like a character in my own version of 1984, I had to negotiate the Qing Ming hordes.

On the square, it was as busy as I’d ever seen it. Multi-coloured, baseball-capped tour groups milled around like gazelle on the vast paved savannah, while those that were not tour-affiliated, seemed to have engaged in a covert battle to infiltrate and out-maneuver the larger groups any time the two sets clashed at the approach to a recognised ‘sight’ or other. It was a technique that worked well, and as we made our way to the underpass that takes visitors under Chang’an Avenue to get a closer look at Mr Mao, the whole thing began to look more like an evacuation than a pilgrimage, as the more nimble-footed within the pack shimmied their way to the front as if their lives depended on it.

It’s easy to forget, however, when you’re allowing yourself to be enthralled by the majesty of it all, that strange and sinister things are afoot in this city. Despite its opening up and the outward display of hospitality, when it comes to matters of “social stability”, not everything in China is as shiny and unthreatening as the latest Apple store would lead us to believe. It is true that China is experiencing a period of prosperity not seen in the country in the modern age. It’s citizens are embracing all that comes with their new-found material comfort. Yet at the same time, the drive to repress anything seen as constituting a challenge to the powers that be, seems to be increasing both in its scope and severity.

Chinese tourists outside Tiananmen Gate, Beijing

Chinese tourists outside Tiananmen Gate during Qing Ming Festival

This is, after all, the site at which that power was so tragically challenged all those years ago. Back then, the ruling elite felt panicked enough to mount what was effectively an invasion of their own capital in order to reclaim their faltering grip on the reigns of a defiant populace. These days, though much has changed for the better in China, the same grievances among the citizenry and the same insecurities amongst its leadership remain. The difference now, is that the suppression of such grievances has assumed a far more sophisticated and insidious guise than it ever had before.

In Beijing itself, for example, the existence of so-called black jails is widely speculated and just as widely denied. Said to be located in such innocuous locations as government-owned hotels, hospitals, residential buildings or other facilities around the city, these black jails serve, essentially, as places where anyone deemed a threat to stability can be silenced. They operate outside the law. In fact, they do not, officially, exist at all. The detentions that give them their purpose need have no legal basis. Nor need detainees be given any reason for their detention or any idea of how long they are to be detained.

Much of the time, the unfortunate occupants of black jails are ordinary Chinese citizens who have travelled to Beijing in order to exercise their constitutional right to petition the government with their complaints. The practice goes back centuries and can center around disputes as varied as unpaid wages and land disputes, to allegations of corruption and police abuse. Ordinarily, redress should be sought at a local level first, only later progressing to Beijing if the complaint remains unresolved. But many citizens have become so desperate at the lack of attention given to their complaints locally, that they see their only alternative being to travel to the capital to try again at the highest level.

Often, petitioning is the only means by which ordinary citizens can directly challenge local governments, and naturally, local governments are not particularly keen on citizens giving voice to their concerns within earshot of their superiors. All the more so since government officials are subject to penalties and punishments if the flow of complaints reaching the capital from their jurisdiction is deemed to be excessive. Black jails have thus become an effective means of suppressing this dissent and preventing it from becoming an issue on the tourist-filled streets of Beijing.

If petitioners are suspected of heading to Beijing, or identified in Beijing upon arrival, local governments are usually free to send private security guards or “retrievers” to “intercept” and detain petitioners against their will, before escorting them back to their home provinces to serve as a warning to others not to attempt anything similar. According to Human Rights Watch, those that run black jails “routinely subject detainees to abuses including physical violence, theft, extortion, threats, intimidation, and deprivation of food, sleep, and medical care.” And while black jails are not under the administration of the government as such, it is essentially with the government’s implicit backing that they are allowed to operate.

It could be said that this overriding need for stability is what the whole authority of the Communist Party rests on. From discontent rise questions and from questions rise challenges. And after the brief whiff of “jasmine revolution” following 2011’s Arab Spring which swept across the Middle East, the Chinese leadership has seemed more nervous about the strength and resolve of public discontent than at any time in recent memory, a memory which for many, stretches back to 1989.


Young Pioneers of China honour guard at the Monument to the People’s Heroes at Tianamen Square

It was during this first day in Beijing that we were given firsthand experience of such paranoia ourselves. Busily taking pictures of Tiananmen Gate and the crowds around, I spotted on the balcony a group of soldiers in their familiar green uniforms overlooking the scene below. There were maybe twenty of them, from what I could see, and it would make a good photo if I could get them in shot along with some of the rest of the gate. I did a quick run/walk from the middle of the crowd to a position where I could get a decent angle, put the viewfinder to my eye ready to click, then heard “Sir, no photo!” in a tone of voice that made me pretty certain that if I attempted it again I’d be sorry.

When I looked up, I saw on the other side of the barrier beyond the low hedge, a plain clothes, walkie-talkie-holding guy, who told me again in an even less agreeable manner: “No photo!”. As I didn’t fancy getting acquainted with the black jail system myself, I complied, and started taking photos of the totem pole I was standing next to instead while he got on his radio. By the time I’d managed to glance back towards the balcony, all twenty guards had, in the space of around fifteen seconds, disappeared.

I spent a few minutes more trying as much as possible to look like the innocent tourist that I was sure I was, before I slunk back into the crowd and headed to the opposite end of the gate away from the source of my growing sense of guilt. But even here I noticed another guy watching me from beyond the fence. He didn’t say anything. But when I looked back again, he was looking over his shoulder, pointing his radio at me as if picking me out to whoever else was watching from whatever hidden vantage point they had.

No doubt my photograph, together with an account of my suspicious behavior and a list of potential crimes against the state, are now safely recorded on a central database of “dangerous individuals taking photographs at tourist spots”. But as I was, by now, more than a little spooked by this second challenge to my innocence, I wasted little time in getting my face out of the line of further suspicion and away from the square altogether. For the rest of the afternoon, I was just another paranoid prole looking out for Big Brother.

Making friends in Beijing

Making friends, Beijing


  1. Wow, that’s quite the experience. I spent a weekend exploring Beijing in March of 2011, and while I didn’t run into any government spooks, I did get harassed repeatedly by women (either in pairs or solo) wanting me to join them at a tea ceremony or art show (where I’d likely have been stuck with an inflated bill afterwards).

    I’ve spent a total of nearly 3 months in China over the past 2 years, and while I won’t even pretend like I understand the place, I definitely do know that its a rather warped place on many levels. Decades of government repression have completely altered the culture to the extent that many people simply do not know how to interact in public. Its sad.

    • Well there’s always going to be high security around such a sensitive site as Tiananmen Square. And there have been reports of Western “tourists” being arrested for attempting protests in Beijing in the past. The state of alert is always high. I just found it surprising that I was picked out and consciously monitored for doing nothing more than taking photographs of probably the most photographed building in China.

      In China as a whole, however, I’ve always found people to be as friendly and welcoming as you could wish people to be. The character and good will of the people I’ve met in China remains as strong as ever regardless of what they and the outside world think of the government they live under.

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