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China's legal system is a mix of new laws and old customs. As recently as a generation ago, the country didn't even have trial lawyers of a criminal code. But there are many instances in which the laws put on the books in recent years don't have much effect, and society runs according to a completely different set of unwritten rules. Some Chinese call these hidden rules.

In the first of two reports, NPR's Anthony Kuhn looks at how some hidden rules are enforced through a system of so-called black jails.

ANTHONY KUHN: Just a couple minutes' walk from one of Beijing's busiest downtown intersections, there's a small hotel run by the government of South China's Guangxi Province. Provincial officials occasionally use the hotel to secretly detain people who've come to the capital to complain about local government abuses. They're kept under a sort of house arrest until they can be shipped home.

I've been tipped off by a human rights activist that a woman named Liu Xinyu is in just such a jam. She's come to Beijing to complain that her ancestral home was bulldozed by a developer without paying her a fair price.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: I find Ms. Liu in the hall outside her hotel room. Next to her are two sullen and bewildered-looking young women who Liu says were hired to guard her. We ignore them and go into Ms. Liu's room to talk.

Ms. LIU XINYU: (Through translator) I was brought here by people sent by the provincial government to stop me from petitioning. I haven't exactly been detained here, but I'm not free, and they won't let me leave.

KUHN: We decide to see what happens if she tries. The answer comes soon enough as we make our way to the door.

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: You'd best leave this matter to us, a middle-aged official in the hallway objects. He dodges my microphone and refuses to answer questions. China is different, he insists. We have our regulations here.

(Soundbite of honking horn)

KUHN: We make it to the street, heading for a drug store, with the official trailing not far behind. Liu eventually returns to the hotel, clinging to hope that the government will help her.

Ms. Liu's hotel is a minimum-security facility. There are other makeshift detention facilities in places like rented farmyards and guesthouses that are better guarded.

China has denied the existence of black jails to the U.N. Human Rights Commission. But almost any petitioner can show you one. Chinese law gives citizens the right to petition their government to redress their grievances. But petitioners say the government treats them like outlaws. And they say police are often complicit in the black jails' operation.

Zhao Fusheng, who is from Sichuan Province, says he was detained in his provincial government's liaison office when he came to Beijing to file a petition. He says it was impossible to tell that it was a black jail from the outside.

Mr. ZHAO FUSHENG: (Through translator) Once the provincial liaison officials get a hold of you, they put you in their basement. Above the basement is a storefront. A door in the storefront opens, they throw you inside, and you're behind a layer of guards. If you disobey, they beat you.

KUHN: Zhao says black jails have become a kind of cottage industry in Beijing.

Mr. ZHAO: (Through translator) The provincial liaison offices pay the black jail operators the equivalent of $36 per detainee per day. Of that, about 15 goes to hire a guard, another 15 for food, and the rest for accommodations.

KUHN: Joshua Rosenzweig is the Hong Kong-based research manager for a human rights group called the Dui Hua Foundation. He says that while the central government wants citizens to inform on corrupt officials, it also expects local officials to maintain order and to keep petitioners out of the capital.

Mr. JOSHUA ROSENZWEIG (Research Manager, Dui Hua Foundation): If you have petitioners from your area flocking to Beijing, it's a sign that you're not doing your job very well at the local level. And therefore, as a local official, you're going to do everything you can to stop those people from making you look bad.

KUHN: Many local governments also maintain informal detention centers.

Petitioner Jin Hanyan, from central Hubei Province, says she accused her county's Communist Party secretary of corruption. For this, she says, she was sent to a so-called study class in an abandoned tobacco factory. Of course, she says, no studying actually went on in there.

Ms. JIN HANYAN: (Through translator) In the morning, they'd yell to wake us up. They'd make us do calisthenics and pull weeds. If you didn't obey, they'd beat you to within an inch of your life and withhold medical treatment if you got sick. They said the county party secretary told them it was not illegal to beat us to death.

KUHN: Beijing-based journalist Wu Si is the author of the 2002 book "Hidden Rules." Government censors banned the book, but society now widely uses the term Wu coined to describe the way things really work in China. Wu says that the black jails are an expression of these hidden rules.

Mr. WU SI (Author, "Hidden Rules"): (Through translator) There have been many of these kinds of places, both in China's history and in the present day. They're an expression of officials' power to legally harm citizens. I call them gray jails. They're neither formal jails nor something that is entirely illegal. They're an oddity that exists in a sort of gray area.

KUHN: Wu says this is the hidden rule that makes all the others stick. Officials have the power to punish citizens more or less at will, either for challenging their authority or just to extort money out of them.

China is certainly not the only society with hidden rules, but China's are especially elaborate. They're also in glaring conflict with the country's laws and with the Confucian virtues that centuries of Chinese governments have espoused.

Mr. WU: (Through translator) The formal rules used to say that county officials should act like people's parents. In fact, they act like masters and lord it over the common people. Those beneath them must show deference, kowtow before them, and offer them all sorts of goods and favors.

KUHN: A few days after I talked to her, I got word that local human rights activists had liberated petitioner Liu Xinyu from her hotel room. So I went to see her again.

(Soundbite of traffic)

KUHN: She stands outside the hotel room and reflects on her experience. She says she now sees her former captors as pathetic.

Ms. LIU: (Through translator) If the local government would just try to resolve our problems for us, then we wouldn't have to petition the higher authorities. There was a time when we trusted the government to resolve our problems. But they didn't respond with sincerity.

KUHN: The Dui Hua Foundation's Joshua Rosenzweig points out that local officials could strike at the root of the problem by resolving petitioners' problems. But unfortunately that's not the way the hidden rules work, and for that reason, the officials just devote their energies to silencing the petitioners.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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