Using a crude sawed-off stick as a cane, Shi Yaping waited outside a government office, competing with a throng of petitioners to air her grievance over a neighborhood dispute.
The 59-year-old had traveled here from the central province of Hubei to take advantage of a centuries-old Chinese custom that grants citizens the right to bring unsettled complaints to a regional panel of inquiry.
Yet Shi knows well the perils of speaking her mind in China, where undercover police and mercenary thugs wait to pounce. She has twice been snatched off the street, held incommunicado on the assumption that she would eventually abandon her cause and go home.
Shi is a victim of the secretive realm of “black jails” -- unlawful detention facilities that have sprung up across China to discourage persistent petitioners considered pests by government officials.
Each year millions of rural Chinese bring their problems to functionaries in Beijing and other cities. Yet very few of their cases are ever resolved, and most end up in legal limbo, activists say.
But the torrent of cases clogs the civil system, and puts political pressure on administrators to settle them. Activists say lower-level officials have responded with organized kidnappings in which petitioners -- many plucked from the streets outside government offices -- are held in clandestine jails in state-owned hotels, nursing homes and psychiatric centers.
The theory: You can’t lodge a complaint if you don’t show up.
“The Chinese petitioning system is completely broken,” said Phelim Kine, an Asia researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch. “And the government is outsourcing its problems to a thuggish black industry.”
Since 2003, the illegal jail network has grown as top Communist Party officials looked the other way, and thousands of petitioners disappeared.
Shi arrived in Beijing months ago hoping officials would resolve her complaint that local police had illegally arrested her nephew. Instead she has found nothing but trouble.
Shi has been imprisoned twice, taken first by security forces to an isolated stockroom and held for days with 100 other people. She was eventually released with her ailing husband, and then was abducted last summer and held for several weeks at a shabby private home.
Jailers denied her requests for water and a piece of paper to swat away the maddening mosquitoes, Shi said.
Today she continues a petitioning process that dates to China’s feudal times.
“The government doesn’t want us to speak out about these jails,” Shi said. “They’re afraid the truth will come out.”
In November, Human Rights Watch released a 51-page report titled “An Alleyway in Hell: China’s Abusive Black Jails.” It cites rapes, beatings, intimidation and extortion as among the abuses.
The report documents 43 cases of petitioners who the authors say were held without official charges or access to their families or legal counsel.
“As China tries to build a functioning legal system, this gnawing black hole for human rights grows right there on the side,” said Nicholas Bequelin, a senior Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch.
After at first denying the jails’ existence, the Chinese government recently acknowledged the problem. An article in the December issue of Outlook magazine, which is owned by the official New China News Agency, cited at least 73 black jails in Beijing alone.
The article says an estimated 10,000 people at a time have been detained in hundreds of jails.
The black-jail system reportedly sprang up years ago, after the government abolished another system that allowed officials to jail petitioners they considered threats.
Under the current for-profit system, private jail operators receive $22 to $44 a day per person, increasing the incentive to prolong captivity, according to the Human Rights Watch report. The fees are paid by local officials.
There were “locked steel doors and windows,” according to a 53-year-old detainee quoted in the report. “We never left our rooms to eat. [Instead] we were given our meals through a small window space.”
For some, being freed brings new trouble.
“You go to Beijing to claim wrongdoing by province officials but you are abducted and sent home,” Bequelin said. “Well, who’s waiting for you there -- the very people you tried to denounce, which brings on another round of unpleasantness.”
The plight of black-jail detainees received more attention last month when a guard at an unofficial detention facility in Beijing was sentenced to eight years in prison for raping a college student who was being held.
Xu Zhiyong, a Beijing law professor and activist who has investigated the jails, said the facilities have evolved to accommodate more detainees and generate more profits.
“We have gone to videotape these places when we learn about them,” he said. “We challenged the operators that they were violating the law and were beaten several times.”
But Xu keeps up the pressure to help petitioners, who he says have filed 10 million cases in the last few years alone.
“I’m not optimistic,” he said. “Millions come to the government for justice. What they get is confinement.”
Zheng Dajing, a petitioner and activist who has spoken out about the jails, said he was held for four days last month in a shed attached to a run-down motel in west Beijing.
“I was held in a small room with the door locked from the outside. There was a big iron gate that cut us off from the outside world,” he said. “There were guards keeping an eye on us all the time. They didn’t beat me. But I was just given green pepper with rice every day for food.”
Days after Zheng’s release, a nervous-looking motel manager denied that petitioners had been kept there. A provincial official in an office on the top floor said he had never even heard of black jails.
“There are help centers to assist petitioners with no transportation to get back to their homes,” said the man, who refused to give his full name. “They’re not jails.”
On a cold December morning, the government complaint office in south Beijing was besieged by a mass of petitioners, each with a compelling tale of human tragedy.
There was the woman who said she was illegally fired from her construction company job, the man who said he had been cheated out of his savings, the retiree beaten by village police.
And there was Wu Changlian. Wearing a dirty dishrag as a scarf, she produced a sheaf of papers she said documented the abuse by local officials that drove her husband to commit suicide. As she spoke to a reporter, a man identified by others in the crowd as an undercover policeman reproached her. “Do you think they will solve your problems?” he jeered. “Use your head.”
Spotting a foreigner, many produced their papers with pleading looks, offering to write down their cellphone numbers. One man said nothing but stuffed his documents into a reporter’s knapsack.
Nearby, Shi Yaping was tailed by two imposing men in dark clothes she knew to be state security officers. She also knew that the dreaded freelance bounty hunters could arrive at any moment to whisk her away again.
But Shi didn’t care. She wasn’t going home, she said. She wasn’t going anywhere.
“I’ll keep coming back,” she said. “They can’t chase me away.”