Extralegal Detention


Extralegal Detention - An Introduction 

In addition to China’s vast system of government sanctioned jails and reform-through-labor camps, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) also imprisons large number of people without trial in secretive containment facilities. This practice is referred to as extralegal detention, since victims are not given the rights guaranteed to them by Chinese law – ie. no trial, no representation, no communication with the outside world. They are simply taken and confined in locations that are not officially acknowledged as prisons. This practice is all too common when the CCP deals with people like human rights advocates and petitioners whom it views as a political threat. In this section, two methods of extralegal detention will be discussed – the Ankang , high security mental hospitals where political undesirables are often held on the basis of spurious diagnoses, and black jails, secret prisons where inmates are confined in appalling conditions without trial.


Black Jails

In China, “black jails” are a system of extralegal detention centers established by Chinese security forces where prisoners, chiefly petitioners, are held without trail in terrible conditions and often subjected to torture. Unlike detention centers, prisons, or labor camps, black jails lack any official legal status and CCP representatives have repeatedly and categorically denied their existence.[1] Despite the CCP’s claims to the contrary, black jails do exist and serve as a cornerstone of China’s suppressive policies aimed at stifling criticism by Chinese citizens. Despite the fact that the Chinese Constitution guarantees the right to petition, individuals who attempt to exercise this right are likely to find themselves facing a terrifying ordeal in a black jail. According to a Human Rights Watch report, nearly all the individuals detained in black jails are petitioners, “mainly rural areas who come to Beijing and other provincial capitals seeking redress for abuses ranging from illegal land grabs and government corruption to police torture.” The report goes on to explain that “[l]ocal officials, with the tolerance of public security authorities, establish the black jails” to punish these citizens and discourage them from continuing with their activities.[2] Detainees in black jails are routinely tortured. Methods include beatings, deprivation of food, sleep, and/or medical attention, and extortion, as well as other types of abuse. The testimony, included in the report, of a 46-year-old former detainee who spent over a month in a black jail follows:

“The abductors] are inhuman...two people dragged me by the hair and put me into the car. My two hands were tied up and I couldn't move. Then [after arriving back in Jiangsu] they put me inside a room where there were two women who stripped me of my clothes...[and] beat my head [and] used their feet to stomp my body.”

This chilling description clearly demonstrates the human rights violations carried out within the black jails and highlights the appalling lengths to which the CCP will go in order to muzzle its populace. Given the highly secretive nature of the black jails, it is difficult to estimate the number of people currently being held in these deplorable facilities, but the victims almost certainly number in the tens of thousands.   


The Ankang

The term Ankang, a Chinese phrase that ironically translates to “peace and health,”[3] refers to a system of high security psychiatric wards where mentally sound individuals whom the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) considers a political threat are imprisoned alongside genuinely mentally ill patients, for years, sometimes decades in appalling conditions. After China’s Communist revolution, the CCP borrowed and adapted the concept from the Soviet Union to control and deter its political activists.[4] The method is simple yet effective. By labeling political activists as mentally ill the CCP is able to detain victims indefinitely without officially imprisoning them while also discrediting their ideas. China’s Ministry of Public Security directly administers all of the Ankang institutions in China.[5] The Ankang system contributes to an environment where political causes cannot easily gain popularity since many people fear the government sanctioned retribution that often accompanies participation.

According to a 2002 Human Rights Watch report by Robert Munro, a 1990 official encyclopedia of police work describes the symptoms of so-called “political maniacs” as “[a tendency to] shout reactionary slogans, write reactionary banners and reactionary letters, make anti-government speeches in public, and express opinions on important domestic and international affairs.”[6] Although the CCP may consider such behavior a sign of disease, according to both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights[7] and, paradoxically, China’s own Constitution,[8] this is simply a legal exercise of the right to freedom of speech. 

The Ankang are not simply places of imprisonment; they are also torture facilities. The abuse of antipsychotic medications and electric shock therapy is an extremely common practice in the Ankang. Outdated medications are often forcibly administered to lucid patients in incredulously high doses to maximize the effects of horrific side effects such as swelling of the whole body, paralysis, blood clots, and severe palpitations. Patients are also often tortured with unnecessary electro shock therapy at dangerously high voltages to punish infractions or as an intimidation tactic.[9]

The conditions in the Ankang grossly violate the most basic human rights norms. The fact that many of the individuals imprisoned in these vile facilities are completely sane people whom the CCP views as a political threat simply adds another facet to this system of institutionalized evil.

For more information on the Ankang see our in-depth report HERE.



[1] "An Alleyway in Hell."  Human Rights Watch , 12 Nov. 2009. Web. . <http://www.hrw.org/node/86421/section/2>.


[2] "China: Secret “Black Jails” Hide Severe Rights Abuses - Unlawful Detention Facilities Breed Violence, Threats, Extortion." . Human Rights Watch , 12 Nov. 2009. Web. . <http://www.hrw.org/fr/news/2009/11/02/china-secret-black-jails-hide-seve....



[3] Nylander, Johan. "Dubious shrinks, political prisoners inside China's mental health care system." CNN. Cable News Network, 1 Jan. 1970. Web. http://www.cnn.com/2014/05/06/world/asia/china-mental-health/


[4] Wang Wanxing Speaks Out About China's "Ankang" System”. Congressional-Executive Commission on China. Web. http://www.cecc.gov/publications/commission-analysis/wang-wanxing-speaks....


[5] VI. The Ankang: China’s Special Psychiatric Hospitals. "Dangerous Minds. Web. <http://www.hrw.org/reports/2002/china02/china0802-08.htm


[6] "China: Political Prisoner Exposes Brutality in Police-Run Mental Hospital | Human Rights Watch." China: Political Prisoner Exposes Brutality in Police-Run Mental Hospital | Human Rights Watch. Web. <http://www.hrw.org/news/2005/10/31/china-political-prisoner-exposes-brut....


[7] "The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, UDHR, Declaration of Human Rights, Human Rights Declaration, Human Rights Charter, The Un and Human Rights." UN News Center. UN. Web. <http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/>


[8] "Constitution Of The People's Republic Of China." English.people.com.cn, 4 Dec. 1982. Web. <http://english.people.com.cn/constitution/constitution.html>.


[9] VI. The Ankang: China’s Special Psychiatric Hospitals." Dangerous Minds. Web. <http://www.hrw.org/reports/2002/china02/china0802-08.htm>.