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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

Chinese cities are becoming modern marvels with their shimmering skyscrapers, high-speed trains and IMAX movie theaters. But behind the affluence and dazzling hardware is a system ruled not by law, but by a single, unchecked power: the Communist Party. Even as Chinese people grow wealthier, they have no reliable way to protect themselves against everything from secret detention to securities fraud.

In our series on the challenges facing China's incoming leaders, NPR's Frank Langfitt looks at the difficulties of trying to manage the world's most populous country, and second-largest economy, without the rule of law.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Li Yufang lost her home a decade ago to make way for a new apartment building in Shanghai. But instead of compensating Li, she says, the government offered her an apartment that was tied up in a separate lawsuit and never accessible.

LI YUFANG: (Through translator) We have been homeless for 10 years and now live in a tiny apartment. We are constantly looking for new places.

LANGFITT: Li has repeatedly traveled to Beijing to petition China's central government for help. And for that, officials treat her like a criminal. Li says police and government thugs frequently detain her, throwing her into local jails or, more often, secret detention centers known as black sites.

LI YUFANG: (Through translator) I was put in black sites many times. I didn't really count how many, but definitely more than 10 times.

LANGFITT: Li says her longest stints in black jails have lasted 10 days. Her worst experience came in 2009 in a district jail. She demanded guards give her a written record of her detention. Instead, she says, they tied her up as punishment.

LI YUFANG: (Through translator) My hands were tied behind my back and I was handcuffed to a door. I stood there for three days and three nights, 72 hours. Other detainees fed me food and water. I lifted my leg to pee or to take a bowel movement with a basin on the floor.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

LANGFITT: Recently, Li took me to a black jail in Shanghai where she's been held six times. It's in the back of a public park. We're walking along and she's pointing to these little cottages that are surrounded by a moat and they have heavy bars over them. And they're kind of - they look European, like little green tile roofs and little patios. It's very, very weird.

We walk up to what looks like Hansel and Gretel's cottage. Inside are two guards wearing camouflage. I ask if there's anyone else inside.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

LANGFITT: No, the guard says.

(Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

LANGFITT: Is this a black jail, I ask? Realizing he's been discovered, the guard quickly retreats inside the cottage.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLOSING DOOR)

LANGFITT: And they're closing the window now. They don't want to talk.

We spot a middle-aged woman behind another barred window with yet another guard.

There's a woman there and she looks very stricken. Currently, he just pulled the curtain shut. She wouldn't talk to me. This is pretty obviously a black detention site.

LI YUFANG: (Foreign language spoken)

LANGFITT: Li says she knows the woman. She says the woman had also traveled to Beijing to complain about corruption in a company where she had worked.

PHELIM KINE: My name is Phelim Kine.

LANGFITT: Kine works for Human Rights Watch, which has studied China's secret detention sites.

KINE: It would be safe to say that across the country that there are hundreds, at least hundreds of locations, whether they are converted schools or hotels or hospital/mental health facilities that serve as black sites or black jails.

LANGFITT: Local officials use secret jails to protect their standing in the bureaucracy. Every time a citizen goes to Beijing to complain, the central government gives local officials a black mark.

KINE: The more petitioners who come from your area, you are going to be punished. That means your career advancement is going to be harmed.

LANGFITT: Want to keep your ratings up? Lock up your critics. It's easy. The Chinese government continues to deny the sites exist, despite the overwhelming evidence that they do. Again, Phelim Kine.

KINE: There is no rule of law in China, that the Chinese Communist Party, they use the law as a tool. Why do people petition? It's because the court systems are broken. It's because they are victims of abuses by government officials and they can't get, you know, redress at home.

LANGFITT: China has an extensive legal code and many good lawyers. The problem is political influence and lack of enforcement. Subverting the legal system not only hurts ordinary people, it also undermines China's greatest strength - its economy. Consider the Shanghai Stock Exchange.

LI DAOKUI: Our stock market is really lousy.

LANGFITT: Li Daokui is an economics professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

LI DAOKUI: In order to perform well, as investing in the stock market, oftentimes you have to rely on insider information.

LANGFITT: In fact, in late September the Shanghai exchange hit a 43-month low in part because it remains so riddled with corruption. But punishing fraud is difficult. Cases are tried in the home provinces of the accused companies.

LI DAOKUI: Our court system is laughable. It's not doing its job at all.

LANGFITT: Li says big firms are usually tight with local politicians, who can tell judges how to rule. Take the case of Yunnan Green-Land, which plants trees for cities. To pump up its IPO, the firm forged documents and grossly inflated its assets. When the scandal broke last year, Green-Land's market value plunged $55 million in one day. But Li says the company had connections with local officials and got off easy.

LI DAOKUI: The chairman of this corporation was found guilty, but he was only put into jail for a few months. And then, he was fined a small amount of fee and the fee was paid out of the shareholders' wealth. It's ridiculous.

LANGFITT: Li says the solution is boosting judicial independence.

LI DAOKUI: Establish a high court in Beijing or in Shanghai, to specially deal with abuse of listed corporations in our stock market.

LANGFITT: Officials are trying to reform the stock market. And they are establishing more rights for people who've been detained. For instance, beginning next year, police must allow family members access to people in custody in most cases. But the new law won't apply to black jails, because officially they still don't exist.

After I left that black jail in Shanghai recently, I asked my companion Miss Li, whether she had been frightened to confront her former captors. She answered without hesitation.

LI YUFANG: (Through translator) We're righteous. They are evil. Their methods are illegal and can't be exposed to the light. They're dark. We're just and honorable.

LANGFITT: There's nothing for me to be afraid of, she added. They're the ones who should be afraid. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: This is NPR.

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