China Daily slams China’s police-run detention centers

I hadn’t opened China Daily in months until today. Someone had told me they’re getting much more aggressive, almost becoming a real newspaper, and sure enough the first article I saw was a lengthy exposé of its government’s detention centers and the abuse of inmates there by local police. I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who found this noteworthy:

Inmates in China’s 2,700 pretrial detention centers suffer bullying and torture at the hands of fellow prisoners and police officers, and some experts want a neutral body to take the centers out of police control to curb the abuses, the state-run English-language newspaper, China Daily, reported on Tuesday.

The newspaper noted that the Communist Party’s latest four-year plan for legal reforms does not contemplate changes in the detention system. The full-page article said that since February 8, five inmates had died under suspicious circumstances while in police custody. Amnesty International, the human-rights advocacy group, last week reported two additional deaths that the police say were due to illness. Family members dispute those explanations.

All seven deaths occurred in police detention centers, where inmates accused of crimes can be held for months awaiting trial or formal charges. The centers are officially run by the national public-security ministry, but are effectively controlled by local police officials who, one expert was quoted as saying, regard them “as part of their turf and the most profitable piece of their territory.”

Another criminal procedure expert, Chen Weidong of Renmin University, was quoted as saying that officers “will sometimes have the detained suspects, especially new ones, tortured so that they can get confessions and complete an investigation as soon as possible.”

Not sure what’s gotten into them, but this kind of serious reporting is certainly a turn for the better. Meanwhile, this despicable practice of allowing local police to run these detention centers should come to an end immediately. If China Daily is reporting it, I want to think it must mean the government is tired of it. Or did this somehow slip through the cracks, and we’ll hear tomorrow that the reporter got fired? Let’s hope this is the start of a trend. Real journalism in China. If it continues, the China’s media have an opportunity to end their image as puppets of the state. How far can it go?

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 35 Comments

Are these secret detention centres? It sounds like these are the legit (but obviously abusive) holding centres – not the black jails infamous for holding petitioners and run by hired thugs.

March 24, 2009 @ 8:36 pm | Comment

Either way – neat to see China Daily actually justifying their slaying of trees. Wonder if the journalist and editors are on their way to the place of which they wrote as I type. ;-)

March 24, 2009 @ 8:38 pm | Comment

You have a point Ryan – my calling them secret isn’t accurate and I’ll amend it. It’s what goes on there that is secret – the torture, the holding without charges, etc.

March 24, 2009 @ 8:40 pm | Comment

The sweeping generalization is not helping. The journalists (pushed by the omnipotent army of Chinese bloggers with their human flesh search engines) who exposed the duomaomao scandal, the brick kiln scandal and many many many many little injustices in our daily life routines that collectively made the society freer and led the public to become increasingly aware of social vices for the past 30 years cannot be just labelled as puppets.

I remember when I was in junior high there was a TV program on a Beijing channel that exposed obstacles or inconveniences ordinary folks encountered one case a day, like how government clerks were rude to the public or some manhandle was stolen and the local authorities just didn’t care (what, do you expect tanks in Tian’anmen or something?). The problems were usually immediately solved because, well, government official didn’t wanna lose face. My parents loved it and they often shared their opinions with their friends who also watched. It was new.

But now you see that kind of reports every day, in every paper, every online new portal. Just because journalists don’t challenge the rule of the commies or support Sarkozy in meeting the DL doesn’t mean they don’t do their jobs to make the society better.

Maybe the reason I posted this comment in a defensive fashion is because I have a dear friend, a former college classmate, who’s now a journalist and she, like many others, wants to make a difference and acts on it, not by overthrowing the government, but by helping local residents care more about this society they live in.

March 24, 2009 @ 9:21 pm | Comment

I’m one of the few lucky foreigners to have spent considerable time in one of these detention centers when I got on the wrong side of a very nasty man who unfortunately had a lot of power in the area.
These are not very nice places and you can be held there indefinitely without any knowledge of how long you will be held there and what is happening to your case. Don’t forget, being China you can be dragged into one of these hellholes without any formal charge or arrest and left to rot within them for any indefinite period of time. There were people sharing my cell who had been in there for years, pining for the day when they would receive a formal trial and be moved to a prison where at least you know how much time you have to serve.

I was lucky enough to have managed to alert some close friends before I was dragged away, because the detention centre made no effort to contact my country’s embassy and it was left to my friends to do so. Even then they made it as difficult as possible for them to visit me and lied about the kind of conditions I was being kept in.
These detention centres are very different from prison. You are put in a cell and that is that. There are no beds, no showers, no jobs or things to do, no opportunities to contact people on the outside, no outdoor time, nothing. Just mind-numbing propaganda fed through a speaker during the daytime, wake-up sirens and bowls of cold rice pushed through the hatch three times a day into a cell which you never leave until release. The police make profit by getting contact details from you of people you know on the outside who can provide you with money, food and information which the guards smuggle in for a hefty cut. There was even one incident where the guards were allowing the prisoners to use their mobile phones for a fee, but weren’t giving a cut to the local police station, so the police from outside came in and arrested some of the guards for corruption in front of us. Some prisoners have “accounts” where they can buy things like peanuts and sunflower seeds from money which their relatives on the outside bring in. One week after the Sichuan earthquake every prisoner’s account was emptied and they were thanked for “donating” towards relief for the earthquake.

If you’re ever faced with the possibility of being invited to one of these places my advice would be to get on the first flight out of China because justice does not exist there.

March 24, 2009 @ 9:22 pm | Comment

800, thanks for that. I’m hoping it’s not true, but it probably is. God knows, I’ve heard worse stories.

Wood, I put your comments on the Review list yesterday so don’t be surprised if they are delayed appearing. Thanks for sharing.

March 24, 2009 @ 9:53 pm | Comment

Well, I guess that in the current dark age worldwide that one has to take journalistic integrity where one can find it, even in the most unlikely of places. My God, we’ve got financial journals handing out awards to the same investment banks that engineered the financial crisis!

I’d like to see the mainstream media, like Fallows, do a report calling for a reopening of the investigation into what really happened on 9/11, rather than doing puff pieces on the romance of Shanghai.

March 24, 2009 @ 10:21 pm | Comment

“Chen Weidong of Renmin University, was quoted as saying that officers “will sometimes have the detained suspects, especially new ones, tortured….”

Yan Can Cook….

March 24, 2009 @ 10:41 pm | Comment

One can only hope, richard. Certainly I wouldn’t write the Chinese media off in pushing the boundaries, even Chinadaily. One would like to think this is a story that at least has the full backing of the newspaper bosses even if it doesn’t mark some sort of change in general reporting. Please keep us updated on any trends.

80025, that’s a horrible story. How long did you spend inside and how did you get released?

March 25, 2009 @ 1:00 am | Comment

@800 I would like to know if you were born in China? Your experience sounds frightening and wonder if you were not born in China, could this happen to any laowai? Your country of birth may have much to do with how you are treated and if you get access to consular services.

March 25, 2009 @ 1:19 am | Comment

Don Tai: I’m white, definitely 100% Caucasian, and come from an Anglo-Saxon nation. I do speak Chinese fluently though which helped me to survive in there.

March 25, 2009 @ 1:36 am | Comment

funny some people being so hysterical. check out u.s. customs, see how they treat foreigners. check out how many people were shot on the streets by cops. not to mention how many butts are poked in their own detention facilities.

March 25, 2009 @ 4:25 am | Comment

This is definitely a positive step, although it’s important to remember that the English-language press faces different controls than the Chinese-language papers. When we see this kind of thing in Chinese newspapers (other than 南方周末 or 南方都市报) then that will be more significant.

March 25, 2009 @ 6:20 am | Comment

zhaoleban, thanks for the typical “US is worse” comment. Ever see my posts on Abu Ghraib? And Gitmo? And Iraq in general? I am harder on the US than I am on China. You’d know this if you had any idea what you were talking about. But you don’t have much self-control, I suspect; it’s all knee-jerk: anyone points out a negative story on China, you counter that the US is worse. Thus China gets a free ride. I criticize both. No free rides or favoritism. I love both countries, and that’s why I bother speaking out about them. Your comment is classic, a textbook example of the fenqing mentality.

Kingsley, good point.

March 25, 2009 @ 7:44 am | Comment

Heh, Richard saved me the trouble of replying to zhaoleban.

There have been some really courageous journalists pushing the envelope in China for a number of years. I think what’s unusual here is that we are talking about a state-run newspaper that has never been known for its bravery or investigative journalism.

March 25, 2009 @ 7:58 am | Comment

flattered for being called young man again. how about write a blog about “yang-la-ji”? i bet many people on this board belong to this category: people who can’t hack in their countries, went to china to find a fortune, mostly by teaching english …

March 25, 2009 @ 8:20 am | Comment

Sometimes it’s not the age, it’s just the maturity.

March 25, 2009 @ 8:44 am | Comment

these so called “courageous journalists” are real “angry young man”, if you know anything about china, talking about maturity …

March 25, 2009 @ 9:32 am | Comment

i bet many people on this board belong to this category: people who can’t hack in their countries, went to china to find a fortune, mostly by teaching english …

Zhao, you are brimming with anger, not sure why. But this kind of comment pulls down the entire site. If I need to ban you, please don’t take it personally. It’s not for your viewpoint, but your hostility.

March 25, 2009 @ 10:03 am | Comment

that sounds very familiar …

March 25, 2009 @ 10:06 am | Comment

Needless to say, zhao is writing from the US.

Zhao, I’m trying to give you a chance. Do you want to seriously discuss issues, or just say how bad America is?

March 25, 2009 @ 10:26 am | Comment

“If China Daily is reporting it, I want to think it must mean the government is tired of it. Or did this somehow slip through the cracks, and we’ll hear tomorrow that the reporter got fired?”

I think it’s the former, that the government allowed this kind of reporting. In the recent months we have heard more than more incidents where the detainee died during detention under mysterious circumstances. For example, the “hide&seek” case in Yunnan, and just last week a high schooler died during detention in Shaanxi. Both cases were reported by mainstream media and have resulted in wide-spread social commentaries. I’d like to think that the central government has the intention to reform this sector, however given the entrenched power of the police(especially at the local level), the central government might need the public to raise hell about it first so that it can gather legitimacy and moment for the reform.

On an unrelated topic, maybe Zhao just need some loving, it’s usually not that easy for Chinese guys to get laid in the U.S…:)

March 25, 2009 @ 10:56 am | Comment

@80025 I don’t mean to pry but wanted to know if you were born within China, HK, or Taiwan because access to consular services can be denied in the place of birth. While I realize that China internally often does not follow its rule of law, I was hopeful that they would at least follow international agreements with foreign nationals. Denial of consular services to foreign nationals should strike fear in every laowai in China. Those laowai that I saw that severely messed with the police in China got beaten up pretty badly, but were given consular access right after the beating.

After your foray in the black jail did you file a complaint with your consulate? Did your consulate do anything (like protest) for you? How long did they force you to wait in order to contact consular services?

March 25, 2009 @ 10:56 am | Comment

The CCP’s apparent openness in handling some tough situations stems from its shrewdness and flexibility rather its willingness to grant the people more latitude. It becomes open when the openness could serve the CCP well and the problem can’t be covered up anymore in this Internet age. For example, it allowed the journalists the ample access to the epicenter of SiChuan earthquake and earned a lot of sympathy (natural disaster is always a given opportunity to show off the govt’s and the PLA’s benevolence). It allows the exposure of police brutality so as to alleviate the people’s pent-up discontent and gives the illusion that more freedom is on the horizon to anyone who is willing and naive enough to believe it. It is absolutely worth it for the CCP to sacrifice a few police so as to look righteous.

when necessary, the govt. will do just the opposite with crackdown, such as blocking the access to some websites, which do disservice to the CCP(can you still access youtube in China?), and kicking the journalists out of Tibet during the riot last year.

March 25, 2009 @ 11:50 am | Comment

I Believe Having An Independent Mind Is Not That Important

When we educate our children, we sometimes tell them “you should have your own independent thinking, and form your own opinions”. So clearly we think that not blindly following others and thinking on your own is a good quality to have.

But this post wants to say that independent thinking is not necessarily a good thing. Now some of you may get very angry and say “Math! How dare you say that! Do you want me to get you banned again!? But if you read carefully what I wrote, I said it is “not necessarily” a good thing, not “absolutely” not a good thing.

Let me give you an example, how many planets are there in the solar system? Everyone in high school has been taught that are are 9 planets, and there’s news recently that a 10th one has been discovered. If it’s been proven, then we’ll say “there are 10 planets in the solar system”. But when we say that statement, we are simply repeating a “mainstream” opinion in the society. I never bought a telescope and observed all 10 planets, and then say “there are 10 planets”. In fact, if you are not a professional astronomer, you cannot find all planets. I have used a telescope before, and I was only able to observe 5 of the 10 planets.

Now, in this case, I have no choice but follow what my textbooks and my teachers and my professors tell me, and repeat after them “there are 10 planets in the solar system”. Does that make me a person with no independent thought, no ability to form my own opinions? Humans study the world as a collective body. Every scientist can only contribute to the world when he is “standing on the shoulders of his predecessors”. The foundation in which a scientist can make real contribution to the world is to first accept most of the mainstream opinions and views of the society, then he can try to “tweak” certain things in a certain branches of his expertise, and then he will be called someone with “independent thinking”.

Given any proposition, a good way to judge whether it is true or not is not to analyze it independently by yourself, because you may spend 100 years analyzing it and obtain nothing in return. I think a good way to judge a proposition is to see if it is a “mainstream” opinion in the world, and if it is, it is safe to accept it. For example, if someone says “China is a great country.” Is that a correct proposition? Well, we know that most of the nations in the world today agree that China is a great country, even President Bush has said it during speeches. So clearly that we can also agree that that proposition is true.

Recently, there is an article that says “The entire land of Japan is just a ‘sub-range’ of China’s Kunlun Mountain”. Now instead of shouting wildly “This is absolutely wrong! How ridiculous!”. We can look at what the “mainstream” of the world thinks. Well I checked “World Almanac” published by the US, and in it, it says clearly that the land of Japan is a sub-range of China’s Kunlun Mountain. Clearly, World Alamanc would not publish anything that is very controversial as facts. And given th reputation and rigor of World Alamanc, it’s unlikely that that proposition is false.

Of course there are cases where “mainstream opinions” were later proven to be false. Like the case of Galileo and Copernicus being persecuted by the Roman Church. So if you think you are as great as Galileo and Copernicus to overthrow mainstream opinions, you are welcome to try of course. But I think I’m not that great a person, I’m just an average person, so I have better use of my time, such as cooking some nice Chinese dishes for my family.

Therefore, instead of saying “it is important to have independent thinking”, I think a better saying is “it is important to judge and understand mainstream opinions”. I think that is a more valuable quality, and is really easier said than done.

March 25, 2009 @ 12:02 pm | Comment

And, wow, Zhao completely misses the point!

I have nothing but admiration for the many Chinese journalists who have risked a great deal to do their work. They are real heroes. But see, they look to expose what’s going on, to speak truth to power, to report on what they see as accurately as they can. Zhao, I don’t think you really appreciate or understand what they do and why they do it and the principles that guide their actions. And that’s too bad.

I honestly do not understand why sincere praise and reasonable criticism = China hating in some peoples’ eyes. As Richard said, I am much much harder on my own country, which is as it should be.

As for the larger issue of what China Daily’s reporting means…hey, if it’s the government that wants these abuses exposed, good!. It shows that a significant faction in the government has some real commitment to the rule of law, and not just “the rule of laws.” And if China Daily is acting on its own, likewise, good! It shows an admirable commitment to journalistic principles. I happen to believe, particularly in a one-party system, a watchdog press is a crucial check on abuse of power.

March 25, 2009 @ 1:29 pm | Comment

Thanks for the interesting post. Actually, China Daily was not alone in reporting this story. A number of laywers were pushing last month, in the wake of the “elude the cat” case, for reforms to the pre-trial detention system. China Youth Daily did one report in particular that mentioned these legal crusaders, who were quite frank about their personal experiences, failing to get access to the accused, etc.

I don’t mean at all to diminish your excitement about the China Daily piece, but I think this fits rather nicely under the category of acceptable “supervision by public opinion” (http://cmp.hku.hk/2007/07/08/432/). So far, coverage has been limited, as far as I can see, to statements by these legal scholars — a few of whom, if I recall correctly, were delegates to the recent “two meetings” (hence the attention). But there have been no independent investigations, as far as I know, from Chinese media looking into the specific cases they cite — and this is a reflection of how difficult the situation is now for media that want to pursue hard news. If media did pursue these cases, we might have another Sun Zhigang on our hands.

March 25, 2009 @ 3:03 pm | Comment

I appreciate the perspective, David. I expect certain other papers to cover this sort of thing like the Southern Metropolis Daily – but a full page with photos in China Daily was still a surprise. It actually made it onto the front page of yesterday’s NY Times, which seemed surprised as I was.

A real shame about the lack of investigative journalism on a subject as serious as this.

March 25, 2009 @ 4:00 pm | Comment

@Kingsley

This is definitely a positive step, although it’s important to remember that the English-language press faces different controls than the Chinese-language papers.

There are Chinese language publications that are much better and much closer to real journalism than English language publications like China Daily. Ever checked out the biweekly Caijing?

@Math

I Believe Having An Independent Mind Is Not That Important

Which makes it sort of pointless to read the rest of your essay or any other of your essays. But I guess this goes straight over your head.

March 25, 2009 @ 5:10 pm | Comment

This slight liberalisation of the press is propaganda chief Li Chngchun’s nod towards ‘a more open China’ as he tours the west. China is seeking to buy a $20 billion stake in western resource companies such as Rio Tinto, and there has been criticism that China is to opaque. Li can tell governments like those in Australia, where he is now visiting, that China is open’. Whether this ‘fresh air’ lasts beyond when China tales control or RTZ remains to be seen.

March 25, 2009 @ 8:27 pm | Comment

here we go again, “rule of law”. just to remind you, law is written by men, most of time men of special interest group or elite.

i would say you happen to be brain washed to believe the exaggerated role of press. ok, press checks government, then who checks press?

didn’t we see enough ugly disply of so called “free press” from democraptic countries this time last year?

March 26, 2009 @ 5:22 am | Comment

@zhaoleban
Since you are writing from the U.S., are you a U.S. citizen? I wouldn’t be surprised if you are. I know many expat Mainland Chinese who now travel with U.S. passport are extrememly “patriotic” and cannot seem to forget their motherland. I am originally from China as well. Unfortunately I am not as “patriotic” as you are. I have been approached numerous times by a former classmate from China (now a US citizen) to join her rank. There is nothing criminal or illegal that she has been doing. Just to defend China and remarket China as a new brand. How special!!! I only have some questions for you. Can you be honest to yourself? Where is your conscience when you defend a government that cracks down on dissidents? Yes, Yes, Yes. There are prison abuses and police brutality in the U.S. But at least prisoners have many avenues to let their abuses known to the world. As for China, prisoners are treated worse than a strayed dog in the U.S. You know that. I am not saying everything in America is good. Do us Mainland Chinese a favor. Go back to China where you belong. It’s idiots like you that have made us look so stupid.

March 26, 2009 @ 10:10 am | Comment


If someone says “China is a great country.” Is that a correct proposition? Well, we know that most of the nations in the world today agree that China is a great country, even President Bush has said it during speeches. So clearly that we can also agree that that proposition is true.

If someone says “China is corrupt and poorly governed, has no human rights and oppresses the T!****ns”, is this a correct proposition? We know most of the famous media organizations like CNN and BBC say this, so clearly we can also agree that Math has to go along with it too. Therefore, instead of saying “it’s important to question media narratives” I think a better idea is to simply accept every negative stereotype and idea about China, so long as a critical mass of people happen to believe it. It really is easier to let other people do your thinking for you.

March 26, 2009 @ 10:15 am | Comment

[...] of power, much less balancing is everywhere. Local security forces act as impromptu jailers in the shanzhai detention camps. Would it matter if the person seized were a Beijing resident? No, not really, unless he or she had [...]

March 27, 2009 @ 12:44 am | Pingback

I do not see this as any surprise

Check here for the Chinese reporting on the issue. It attracts more than 1000 comments
http://news.163.com/09/0326/09/55AQV3GB0001124J.html

March 27, 2009 @ 9:39 am | Comment

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