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Nationwide system of arbitrary detention revealed Not welcome at the party: behind the “clean-up” of China’s cities A report on administrative detention under “Custody and Repatriation”

September 29, 1999

To “prepare” for the National Day celebrations, for some months police in cities across the country have been detaining people in a “clean-up” campaign to clear the streets of those deemed undesirable by urban authorities. The vast majority of detainees are ordinary migrant workers. Other prime targets include China’s street children, homeless, mentally ill and mentally disabled. Most are locked up under a form of arbitrary detention called Custody and Repatriation (C&R).

A measure previously unknown to the outside world and little acknowledged in China, C&R is used to deprive several million people a year of their freedom without any judicial process. We estimate that hundreds of thousands of people will be spending their National Day in the more than 700 C&R detention centers in China.

Human Rights in China’s report, released today, reveals to the world for the first time the current policy and and regulatory regime for C&R, as well as an investigation into the actual practice in several cities. It shows how this form of administrative detention circumvents the minimal guarantees of due process recently incorporated into Chinese law, and violates both Chinese and international law. Our investigation found that conditions in C&R detention centers are generally abusive. Children, from infants to teenagers, are routinely held in the same cells with adults. Beatings, inadequate sanitation and ventilation, poor food and water and long working hours are the norm. To add insult to injury, detainees are required to pay for their sojourn in these facilities.

“This arbitrary and abusive system has remained hidden in part because it targets some of the most marginalized people in China,” said Sophia Woodman, HRIC research director. “Being poor or from a rural area is not a crime, but such people can be detained at the whim of the police because they supposedly sully China’s image. This is a flagrant abuse of human rights, and reflects the fact that China’s rural dwellers remain second class citizens in their own country.”

With the PRC set to celebrate its 50th anniversary, C&R detentions have reached a peak. However, “clean-up” campaigns are regularly launched in association with special occasions, and continue at a steady rate throughout the year. The authorities’ use of the C&R system illustrates how reforms aimed at establishing guarantees for the rights of detained persons are being subverted through administrative measures which allow for abusive practices to continue unchanged under other names. Beijing received much credit when administrative detention under “Shelter and Investigation” (referred to in the report as Custody and Investigation) was supposedly eliminated when it was incorporated into the revised Criminal Procedure Law in 1996. But in practice, the police have continued to detain people under C&R who they are unable to hold under the new law.

As regards the detention of children with adults, it is ironic to note that children who are suspected of having committed criminal offenses or have been convicted of a crime are better protected under Chinese law than the children picked up on the streets and sent to C&R centers.

While the police are mainly responsible for detaining C&R targets, in most cities the system of detention centers where they are held is run by the civil affairs departments, as they are supposed to be a form of “welfare” facility. (Beijing is an exception: in the capital all C&R functions are under the control of the Public Security Bureau.) But as the cash-strapped civil affairs system can hardly keep up with demands on its funds, much of the money for running this system and paying its staff has to come from detainees and their families. For this reason, the system has an incentive to maximize the number of detainees who can pay and to avoid taking in the “vagrant beggars” who are identified as the targets of C&R under the existing national regulations. Ostensibly aimed at dealing with indigent people, C&R has actually become a rent-seeking mechanism which feeds off migrant workers.

The lack of transparency which has allowed the C&R system to remain hidden is also a major factor contributing to the abusive conditions detainees experience. Unlike for police detention, there is not even supervision in theory, let alone in practice. C&R detainees are mostly prevented from contacting anyone outside the centers. Among other recommendations detailed in the report, HRIC urges the Chinese government to take immediate action to grant open access to C&R centers, to allow detainees to contact whoever they wish and to move all children in C&R centers to facilities where they can receive proper care. In the longer term, we call on the authorities to repeal all regulations permitting administrative detention and to release all such detainees. The C&R centers also require the urgent attention of the international community.

The whole C&R system demonstrates that, 50 years after the Chinese Communist Party came to power on the crest of what many scholars labeled a “peasant revolution,” those of rural origin continue to be second class citizens in their own country. The most obvious evidence of this is that when they go into the cities, at the whim of a police officer they can find themselves detained and sent to work 12-14 hours a day for no pay just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

HRIC’s 52-page report includes accounts of detention from six former C&R inmates, as well as a list of C&R facilities on which we have collected information. The entire report is now available on HRIC’s website at: If you would like to receive a hard copy of this report by e-mail or regular mail, please call us.