2010: Southern Metropolis Daily investigates China’s notorious “black prisons”

2010: Southern Metropolis Daily investigates China’s notorious “black prisons”

In Autumn 2010, several newsrooms started to report on China’s “black prisons” — secret, unlawful detention centres employed by the authorities where detainees are subject to intimidation, abuse and torture. Most of the reports focused on the private security firm An Yuan Ding, a company that operated multiple “black prisons” and primarily targeted citizens who were going to Beijing to petition the central government.

Southern Metropolis Daily’s report is the most comprehensive one to dig into the case of An Yuan Ding. After six months of investigation, this piece exposed in detail the scope, business model, and “mafia-like” behaviour of the company. It also brought into question China’s “stability preservation” policy, which put pressure on local governments to reduce the number of petitioners sent to Beijing.

Despite being censored shortly after publication, the report shined a bright light on China’s “black prisons” and attracted widespread national and global attention. An Yuan Ding company faced a police investigation and its chairman and general manager were arrested and convicted under charges of “illegal detention” and “inappropriate management.” The Criminal Procedure Law was amended two years later. While condemning the use of torture, it most importantly legalised the use of “black prisons” under the name of “residential surveillance at a designated location” (RDSL).

About Southern Metropolis Daily

Southern Metropolis Daily, in operation since 1997, is part of the Nanfang Media Group and is known as an independent, critical voice. Throughout the newspaper’s tenure, its staff and journalists have been repeatedly detained, arrested and questioned by police. Despite these obstacles, the paper has won multiple awards and recognitions including the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize in 2005.

An Yuan Ding: Investigating ‘black prisons’ in Beijing

By Long Zhi (journalist) & Yang Yibei (intern)

A private security company called Beijing An Yuan Ding Security and Defence Technological Services, Ltd. (hereafter referred to as An Yuan Ding) has quietly grown massively in scale in Beijing, amassing a staggering number of awards in a few short years and climbing to the pinnacle of China’s private security industry.

However, journalist investigations have increasingly revealed that An Yuan Ding is primarily involved in detaining citizens from the provinces who came to Beijing to petition the central government. This security company was able to grow so rapidly in such short a time because it was allegedly paid by regional governments to operate multiple “black prisons” in Beijing, either detaining petitioners to send them back forcibly or even using violent means to stop them.

In an essay lambasting the “black prison” phenomenon, Xinhua News Agency’s Outlook Weekly magazine quoted an authoritative report that pointed to 73 “temporary relocation sites” set up by various provincial and municipal governments in Beijing. Of these sites, prefecture-level local governments operated 57 (around 78%) of them. Of the total 73, 46 were non-business venues (such as houses rented out by farmers) and the other 27 were hotels, inns and guest houses that operated as normal businesses.

These “black prisons” are a cancer in a country that follows the rule of law. Who gave private security companies like An Yuan Ding the power to operate outside of the official judiciary? Our reporters spent six months investigating the “hidden business” of these companies.

Part I—A nightmare for petitioners: protesting in vain

How did petitioners become trapped in the nightmare of An Yuan Ding? What did they encounter in the “black prisons”? Who is the face behind this private force that kidnaps and detains petitioners on such a massive scale?

A: The story of Zhang Yaochun, a female police officer

A petitioning policewoman is sent to a black prison

On her third day in Beijing, Zhan Yaochun received a phone call telling her to head to the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region’s offices in Beijing on the East Middle Ring Road. Accompanying her was another petitioner, Lin Tifen, from Zhanjiang in Guangdong Province.

The Guangxi Region representative’s office in Beijing was located in the Guijing Hotel, between Shuangjing Bridge and Guomao Bridge. The hotel was semi-closed, the only entry being a steel-barred gate that opened onto a busy road bridge.

The date was 16 December 2009, and the temperature in Beijing was a freezing -5℃. Although she did not think it odd to be called here, Zhang Yaochun nevertheless kept an eye out for unwelcome surprises and told Lin Tifen to wait for her at the entrance room at Guiling Hotel.

Prior to 2000, Zhang Yaochun worked as a police officer in the household registration division of the public security bureau in Hepu County, Guangxi Region. Before this, she worked for two years in the bureau’s internal security division, where she was in charge of registering firearms. In this capacity, she witnessed how chaotic the registration system was: government officials could be bribed to issue guns to foremen and rich businessmen who were personal friends or even sell guns and ammunition illegally to certain organisations and individuals. ①

During an inspection of law enforcement operations, Zhang informed the inspectors of the truth and submitted a document with detailed evidence of illegal acts committed by officials at the Hepu County public security office. After the inspectors left, Zhang was first transferred to another position, and then fired on the grounds of “subpar performance.”

Even though the story was covered by Southern Metropolis Weekend Edition in 2001, her situation did not improve–in fact, she faced even more hardships with the media exposure: before this, she was fighting against corrupt individuals, but now she became an enemy of the entire corrupt apparatus. Even though her accusations were substantiated and dealt with one by one, she was never able to regain employment. In the summer of 2007, a former anti-corruption colleague refused to renew her national ID for her, saying that her ID was fake. Zhang had now become a person without identity in her own country.

Since her first journey to petition in Beijing nine years ago, Zhang Yaochun has encountered Guangxi representatives stationed in the capital countless times. On this particular day, she received a phone call from a certain person at the Guangxi representative’s office, surnamed Zhu, telling her to come to the office for a briefing.

She arrived on time but quickly noticed things were not what they seemed. In addition to government officials from the city of Beihai, where Hepu County is located, there were also two plainclothes policemen blocking the alleyway. They had finally come to take her away; she tried to escape but was unable to. She had fallen into a prearranged trap. 

A white van was waiting for her, with “An Yuan Ding Secure Transport” written prominently on the side. Two young men dressed in black uniforms stormed out of the van; to Zhang Yaochun’s eyes, these uniforms were plainly recognizable. They were in the exact same style and colour as those worn by tactical police units, except their shoulder patches said, “Special Operations.”

This was Zhang Yaochun’s first encounter with the An Yuan Ding private security company. Five months later, when she was trapped by officials at the Guangxi representative’s office a second time and handed over to An Yuan Ding personnel, she managed to strike up a conversation with one of the “spec ops” people on the long, guarded journey back to Hepu County. 

In the van, she asked, “Where are you taking me?”

They replied, “You‘ll know eventually.”

Zhang shouted, “I have a right to know where I”m being taken. You can’t do this to me. This is a violation of my human rights.”

Two of the “spec ops” people gave her a stern warning: “You’ll be quiet, or you’ll die.”

Officials from the Guangxi representative office witnessed the entire process, and Zhao Yaochun noted that they even helped to shove her into the van. However, they were not just complicit in the act. They actually hired An Yuan Ding for the job and phoned them to send their people over. In their capacity as government officials, they had contracted An Yuan Ding to forcibly take back petitioners who had come to Beijing. Of all the services offered by An Yuan Ding, this was the most profitable one, and the most despicable. ②

In Zhang Yaochun’s view, this was no different from a prison van, since this violated her freedom of movement. After driving for more than an hour, the van reached a place without any road signs. Later, she saw a sign outside the window pointing to the Beijing-Tianjin high-speed railway, road signs indicating they were on the Fourth Southern Ring Road on the outskirts of Beijing and wooden posts saying “Red Door Road.” Beyond these red doors were farming villages. Further on, only derelict factories and warehouses remained, along with some far-flung patches of woodland.

As evening approached, the van stopped at a two-storey building with a sign that said “Kai An Da Backup Warehouse”. Four red steel-barred doors led into the building, which was an old, run-down factory.

More than two hundred people were detained there when Zhang Yaochun arrived. Although there were heating units on the walls, they were so old that they barely functioned in the frigid temperature. The blankets all smelled of filth, but everyone was fighting over them. For these detainees, their only option was to squeeze together to keep warm in the long, freezing Beijing night. This was a humiliating experience for Zhang: men and women were held together, without a shred of dignity.

This was just one of the many “holding houses” operated by An Yuan Ding in and around Beijing. For petitioners, these were “black prisons.” 

Their fate was no different from someone who had broken the law and been sent to prison by the courts: from the moment they were thrown in and the gates clanged shut behind them, they had lost all dignity. They would first be searched–IDs, phones, and anything else they had on them would be confiscated. This would take away all means of contacting the outside world, as well as any sort of resistance.

On the third day, Zhan Yaochun went to stand in line before 8 a.m. in the hope of getting some porridge but was flatly told, “There is none.”

Still coming to terms with her predicament, she angrily rushed ahead and protested, which stirred up the emotions of some of her fellow kidnapped petitioners.

At this particular holding house, two middle-aged men in security uniforms were in charge: Qiu Lin and Niu Lijun, both from the city of Harbin. Niu was the more unforgiving of the two; before Zhang Yaochun could say anything, he dragged her into an office room, slammed the door shut, and then proceeded to violently punch her in the head, slap her face, and kick her a few times.

Other petitioners outside the door hollered for Qiu Lin to come. By the time the door was broken open, Zhang Yaochun had already been heavily beaten. NIu then brandished a taser in front of everyone, aiming to strike Zhang in the head, but was restrained by the crowd in the nick of time.

In his security guard uniform, Niu shouted at Zhang, a former police officer, to collect her belongings and prepare to go to jail. Full of anger, Zhang thought that it would not matter where she would end up: she was not afraid, she would never give in, and the worst that could happen to her was death.

A special operations squad leader, Wei Yingqiang (from Baiyin in Gansu Province, who has now left An Yuan Ding), came to check on the situation. Zhang asked Wei, “Could you go into the kitchen and see if there’s any rice left?”

Wei scraped around in the pot a few times but was unable to collect even a single spoonful of rice.

Forcibly deported for the price of 30,000 CNY

In 1971, the American psychologist Philip Zimbardo conducted what is now known as the Stanford prison experiment, which reshaped the world’s naïve beliefs about human nature. In this experiment, college students who were physically healthy and mentally stable were tested, and those who passed were recruited as volunteers and randomly assigned to be prisoners or prison guards in a mock prison. From the very beginning, the subjects felt strongly attached to the roles they were assigned to play. By the sixth day, the roles had become too realistic: ordinary college students had now become merciless guards and mentally tormented prisoners, leading to the early termination of the original two-week experiment. Simply putting on a uniform was enough to cause a person to change their behaviour. 

The impact of situational factors on people’s behaviour was all too present in An Yuan Ding’s “black prisons”: the high walls surrounding a closed-off building, the uniforms worn by management that were no different from police uniforms, even with officer numbers on their chest—the only difference was that the label on their shoulder patches said “security maintenance”. The gate would only open when “prison vans” came to bring more petitioners in, or to deport them back home: guards in full special operations attire would stare coldly at the fearful petitioners, and yell at them for no apparent reason. In fact, when our reporters interviewed the headhunting firm that recruited new employees for An Yuan Ding, they told us that after 2008, the criteria for recruitment had now risen to include only former soldiers taller than 180 cm who had received proper military training.③

Even though Zhang Yaochun constantly reminded herself that this was an organisation that had no legal authority to detain them, she nevertheless felt as if she were a criminal behind bars during her illegal detention. As she discovered, her fellow detainees behaved as if they were indeed prisoners serving their time, and guards like Niu Lijun, who wore security uniforms, behaved as if they believed they were law enforcement officials with the proper authority.

Since An Yuan Ding aimed to keep the detainees held as long as possible, its black prisons were always full, and the company was constantly kept busy.

According to what Wei Yingqiang told Zhan Yaochun, local governments would pay An Yuan Ding 200 CNY per person per day detained. An Yuan Ding’s employees would call government officials to ask whether to deport a detainee back home or to keep them in custody; the reply would usually be the latter.

After being locked up for five days, Zhang Yaochun and another person from Changle in Guangxi were escorted back to Beihai City. Inside the prison van, with “An Yuan Ding Secure Transport” written on the side, and a Beijing-issued licence plate with the number “M OB035,” were five people: two drivers and three spec ops personnel, two men and a woman.

The ride was a continuation of the situation in the black prison. The detainees were told that they were not allowed to stop for a meal, nor were they allowed to use hot water to prepare the bread and instant noodles inside the van—they were only allowed to eat them dry, and there were no alternatives. The trip from Beijing to Hepu in Beihai City, Guangxi took two days and one night; the two drivers took turns driving, and the van never stopped. 

The van arrived in Hepu at 11 p.m. and stopped near a toll station on the highway. There were people there already waiting: two officers from the Hepu County public security bureau’s letters and calls division, surnamed Peng and Li, who were former colleagues of Zhang Yaochun, and an official from the county’s public complaints bureau, surnamed Zhou.

The handover was quick and streamlined: An Yuan Ding’s spec ops quickly went through the contract with the local police, collected their payment, and headed back to Beijing, while the local police escorted the petitioners back to the city.

On 27 May 2010, Zhang Yaochun was kidnapped by Guangxi representative officials in Beijing and handed to An Yuan Ding a second time. This time, she and another petitioner were deported back to Guangxi in a van with the Beijing-issued licence plate “M OB039”. 

This time, a spec ops guard she was familiar with said that the cost for returning her to Guangxi was 30,000 CNY. ④ The spec ops squad leader mockingly encouraged her: “The next time you come petitioning in Beijing, the corrupt officials in your hometown are going to get really afraid.”

“No kidding,” Zhang snapped back, “I come to Beijing to petition, and you guys make 30,000 CNY.”

During the handover at the same place as last time, Zhang caught a glimpse of the contract between the local public security bureau and An Yuan Ding, and a certificate issued by the Guangxi representative office in Beijing dropped out. 

“I was not surprised at all. I’m a former police officer who was locked up in a black prison and escorted back like a criminal. After what I’ve been through, is there anything else that can surprise me?” she said.

B: Fear and questions from beaten petitioners

Fu Zhenghua, a police official with a background in criminal investigation, became the head of the Beijing Public Security Bureau in 2010. On his 74th day on the job, the new 55-year-old chief gained a name for himself by launching a raid on Beijing’s most well-known nightclub.

The emergence of Fu Zhenghua on the scene gave Xie Qiming from Wuxi in Jiangsu Province a glimmer of hope. After consulting with 17 other petitioners, Xie and the group decided to write an open letter to Fu, detailing that under his watch as the highest-ranking official in the capital city’s public security bureau, the An Yuan Ding private security company is allegedly engaged in acts of organised crime, including kidnapping, illegal detention, violent assault, indecency against women, and racketeering. ⑤

The 44-year-old Xie served as the legal representative of the old pencil sharpener factory in Wuxi. On 26 January 2010, he travelled to Beijing to petition, and three days later he went to register at the public security bureau’s letters and calls division near Beijing’s Wangfujing district; roughly 60 petitioners from Wuxi were there that day. After lodging his petition, Xie and his group of 18 people were walking about on the street, when they were approached by police officers asking them if they had come to the capital to petition, and who demanded to see their IDs.

They were then taken to a public security substation, where they were interrogated. Roughly three hours later, an An Yuan Ding transport vehicle arrived in the substation driveway, and the police officers handed over the group of 18 petitioners from Wuxi. They were then segregated by gender and locked up. Xie Qiming and another male petitioner were taken to the entrance room at the An Yuan Ding headquarters at No. 88 East Fourth Ring Road in the south of Xiaohongmen District. Xie counted roughly 60 others there sharing his predicament. The other 16 female petitioners were taken to a warehouse near the An Yuan Ding headquarters, where roughly 200 petitioners were held, according to their estimates. ⑥⑦

Now under the custody of An Yuan Ding, they were searched one by one, and all personal belongings were taken away, including their mobile phones and IDs. Their freedom of movement was restricted under the watch of security guards. As Xie remarked, “The security guards had uniforms similar to official police uniforms, so it was often hard to distinguish between them.”

The petitioners were held here by An Yuan Ding for more than 24 hours. On the evening of 30 January, the 18 petitioners were led onto a coach marked “An Yuan Ding Secure Transport”, and driven back to Wuxi; on the coach were two drivers, as well as more than 20 “special operations” personnel, who were each assigned to guard one of the petitioners. The petitioners were not allowed to talk to each other; any minor infractions would cause the guards to hurl insults at them.

When the coach reached a highway rest stop near Cangzhou in Hebei Province late in the night, the guards sat inside and smoked. The 16 women begged the guards to stop smoking since they could hardly breathe with all the cigarette smoke inside, but the guards only hollered abuse at them.

The leader of this “special operations” squad was a tall, burly, fat man who was extremely uncivilised and violent. He beat up a woman named Shen Jianqun. ⑧ 

Wang Pingxian, another female petitioner, had just returned to the coach from the toilet and was accidentally struck by “Fatty” when she stood behind him. When she asked “Fatty” what he was doing, he turned around and began landing blow after blow upon her face, while shouting at her, “That wasn’t a beating, this is a beating!” Wang Pingxian’s face was all bloodied by the vicious beating, and her eyes were bruised. ⑦

Not content with beating Wang’s face up, “Fatty” also beat and grabbed at her breasts in front of everyone, which disgusted even some of the other guards, who told him to stop. “Fatty” paid no attention, however, and continued to beat the women. ⑤

By this time, Xie Qiming had returned to the coach from the toilet and saw “Fatty” beating the women. He tried to intervene, saying, “You can just talk to them, there’s no need to beat them up.” Without saying a word, “Fatty” punched Xie in the face a few times, and yelled at two other guards to help beat Xie up.

Later on, when the coach reached Shandong Province, Xie was twice beaten up by “Fatty” again for no apparent reason; while he was lying on the ground, the other guards fiercely stamped on his hands. During the vicious beatings, “Fatty” continued to yell, “I’m going to let you see, this is called beating someone up!”

Later examinations at the Wuxi People’s Hospital showed that Xie suffered a distal radius fracture (see certificate of diagnosis).

The coach reached the front gate of Wuxi’s New Stadium on the evening of 31 January, where each of the 18 petitioners was led away by local calls and letters officials. Xie Qiming and Wang Pingxian both were still bleeding from their facial bruises.

Xie Qiming was the last one to be led from the coach, and he saw the two parties completing their transaction: “A middle-aged man from the Wuxi city government gave money to one of the An Yuan Ding drivers, after which they each went their own ways.” 

However, the petitioners were not taken home. Instead, they were given oral orders to be detained in hotels around the region on the pretext that they were “learners”. They were only released the day before Lunar New Year, without any legal papers or official procedures. 

During our interviews, Xie Qiming and Wang Pinxian said that during their hotel detentions, they managed to gather information from their guards that An Yuan Ding was paid more than 4,100 CNY per detained petitioner, for a total of more than 80,000 CNY; this included 300 CNY per person per day for meals and lodgings, in addition to transport fees. However, it was later understood that An Yuan Ding was actually paid more than 10,000 CNY per person, which came from officials at each petitioner’s local street.

“This was what we went through,” said Xie Qiming. When they were released from their “learner” detention, they felt no joy in the New Year celebrations. Rather, they continued to be haunted by their ordeal.

During the Lunar New Year holiday, the 18 petitioners met to list their fears. They wanted to ask: “Does the An Yuan Ding private security company have the authority to enforce the law? Is the company suspected of acts of organised crime, including kidnapping, illegal detention, violent assault, indecency against women, and racketeering. We understand that stability can only be achieved through the rule of law, and not violence and criminal acts. We hope that someone can respond.” ⑤

C: An old petitioner sues An Yuan Ding

Dai Yuequan, a 57-year-old petitioner from Chongqing City, has taken the step of suing An Yuan Ding and the Chongqing Representative Office in Beijing, seeking to end the nightmare for petitioners through legal means.

Dai had been petitioning for many years. He was assigned to a reservoir maintenance project in July 1977, but he was physically impaired on the job and did not receive adequate compensation. He spent the next twelve years petitioning higher and higher authorities until he ended up as a petitioner in Beijing. On 30 September 2009, after he lodged an official petition at the National Public Complaints and Proposals Administration, he was sent to the Jiujingzhuang Reception Centre where many petitioners were held. After being taken into custody by Chongqing Representative Office officials, he was handed over to An Yuan Ding, and locked up in a black prison in Hongsi Village, Nanding Road in Beijing’s Chaoyang District.

“Dozens of petitioners were detained in the black prison, the youngest was Zhou Yi, the two-year-old infant son of Zhou Bo from Shizhu County in Chongqing City, who was crying for his mother all the time… Their family had three generations locked up at the same time, the oldest were in their 70s, and there was also a crippled person from Anshun in Guizhou Province who was only able to crawl on the ground in a wheeled cart….”

Four days later, a university student managed to escape from the black prison and notify outsiders of its existence. The detainees were immediately transferred to the Chian Cheng Ya warehouse in Xiaohongmen Village, Chaoyang District, outside Beijing’s Fourth Ring Road.

This was an even bleaker black prison than before: two huge metal doors were locked night and day, with guards stationed at the door and on patrol around the clock, while other guards would frequently roll call the detainees inside. Two guard dogs were also placed at the gate to keep a watch on passersby.

This black prison held about 100 detainees, the oldest of whom was Yang Peigeng, a 75-year-old from Heihe City in Heilongjiang Province. The detainee who had spent the longest time there was  Liao Qirong, from Ganzhou in Jiangxi Province, who had been locked up there since 18 August 2009. By his account, Liao was beaten up as soon as he arrived, and the beatings stopped only when he signed a written guarantee promising that he would cease petitioning. Liao also said that the guards would beat detainees all the time. He witnessed a person from Yunnan whose clothes were all bloodied from the beatings and was then forcibly stripped.

Dai Yuequan was locked up at the Chian Cheng Ya warehouse for six days, after which he was escorted to Beijing’s west bus terminal, and handed to a Chongqing representative from Bachuan, who was in charge of intercepting petitioners.

Dai Yuequan had become a frequent “guest” in the black prisons because he kept returning to petition in Beijing. In May 2009, he was taken into custody by Chongqing Representative Office officials, shoved onto a car with a Beijing-issued licence plate number “E 25441”, and taken to a black prison in a forest more than 200 metres off the road in the east of Liuzhuang Village, Lucheng Town, Tongzhou District, on the outskirts of Beijing. ⑨

After he was deported back home, the local police station warned Dai, “You are forbidden to petition at any public authority in any location from now on, or else you will immediately be sent for re-education through labour. You have already been detained multiple times and sentenced to reform through labour, so the next time you’ll be sentenced to five to ten years in prison.”  ⑨

In March 2009, Dai Yuequan and Lin Yongliang, another petitioner from Chongqing, were about to board the No. 20 bus at Beijing’s south bus terminal to lodge a petition at the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, when they were apprehended by Chongqing Representative Office officials, shoved onto a car with a Beijing-issued licence plate number “M 10167”, and taken to a black prison in a forest near the Fu Le Yuan Food Company in Lucheng Town in Beijing’s Tongzhou District. 

In September 2007, Dai Yuequan was beaten by Chongqing Representative Office officials while he was in Beijing petitioning with his wife, causing multiple traumatic injuries to tissues around his body.

From September 2007 to October 2009, Dai Yuequan was detained three times, for a total of 16 days. He was viciously beaten twice, and robbed of his possessions, including material evidence and legal books, once. He has reported his case to the Chaoyang District Prosecutor’s Office and Public Security Bureau, stating, “These were all acts committed by xxx of the Chongqing Representative Office in Beijing, in collusion with the An Yuan Ding private security company.” On 25 May 2010, the Prosecutor’s Office issued a notice, stating that his case had been submitted to the letters and calls division at the Chaoyang District Public Security Bureau for processing.

The Chaoyang District Public Security Bureau then told Dai to wait one week, as they sent out staff to investigate the Chongqing Representative Office in Beijing and An Yuan Ding. Dai Yuequan returned a week later but received no response from anyone. 

After another week, Dai still received no response. In late June, police at the public security bureau told him, “This is not our responsibility, take your case elsewhere.”

“But I was held in an An Yuan Ding black prison that was located in your jurisdiction, if I can’t come to you to press charges, where can I go?” As before, Dai received no response.


①: Southern Metropolis Weekend Edition, 19 April 2001: “The female police officer who was fired.”

②: Interview with anonymous An Yuan Ding special operations officer who had guarded Zhang Yaochun.

③: Interview with an executive who had helped An Yuan Ding recruit guards and special operations officers.

④: Interview with anonymous An Yuan Ding special operations officer.

⑤: Xie Qiming et al., “An open letter to the new Beijing Public Security Bureau chief Fu Zhenghua, from 18 residents of Wuxi”.

⑥: Interview with Xie Qiming.

⑦: Interview with Wang Pinxian.

⑧: Interview with Shen Jianqun.

⑨: Interview with Dai Yuequan. 

Part II—Digging into An Yuan Ding’s background

How did An Yuan Ding change from a “general store” into a professional security company? What was behind its meteoric rise? How did a farmer from Hebei come to hold the fate of petitioners in his hands?

Beginnings: The travails of a private security company

On 16 June 2004, Zhang Zhaohua, a resident of the upmarket Webok House gated community in Weigong Village in Beijing’s Haiding District, registered a company named “An Yuan Ding Trading Company, Ltd.” with the Haiding District Commerce Bureau. The company’s registered capital was recorded as 500,000 CNY, with two individuals listed as investors: Zhang Zhaohua, and Zheng Changxing. Zhang, who invested 400,000 CNY, was listed as the company’s legal representative. ①

Although nominally a company in the service industry, An Yuan Ding’s business covered a range of seemingly random stuff: custom-made clothing, headwear, shoes, accessories, security and protective gear, and security consultation services.

The two investors quickly realised that if they were to succeed in the business, they would have to narrow their scope.

In August 2005, the company’s name was changed to what it is now:  Beijing An Yuan Ding Security and Defence Technological Services, Ltd.; its operations were now clearly defined as security consultation services. The company’s registered capital and investors remained unchanged.

For reasons unknown, the two founding investors of Beijing An Yuan Ding Security and Defence Technological Services, Ltd. backed out in March 2006. When asked about this over the phone, Zhang Zhaohua was unwilling to share any more details, only stating, “Just as you’ve seen, we transferred ownership of the company according to normal procedures.” ②

A total of six people were now listed as the new investors, with the same registered capital of 500,000 CNY. The two main investors were now Zhang Jun and Fu Guoyou, who each invested 125,000 CNY; Zhang Jun was now listed as a legal representative, and the company’s address was changed from the original 119 square metre residence in Weigong Village, to a 59.12 square metre house located at No. 21 Dinghui West Borough in Beijing’s Haiding District.

Born in 1963, Zhang Jun was officially listed as hailing from Weichang County, a remote county in the far north of Hebei Province. During the reign of the Kangxi Emperor in the Qing Dynasty, the county was the private hunting ground for the ruling Aisin-Gioro clan, which gave the county its name, “Weichang” meaning “walled grounds.” By the time Zhang Jun was born, the area had lost its lustre, its residents were now primarily farmers who relied mostly on their potato harvest.

Zhang Jun’s father was a soldier who fought during the Siping Campaign between the Nationalists and the People’s Liberation Army, during which he was injured and later discharged. Zhang Jun was the eldest of the family’s children, with two younger brothers under him. After graduating from middle school, the physically imposing Zhang Jun served as the company commander of the civil guard in Weichang County’s Chezi Village; others of the same age nicknamed him “Naizei;” meaning “wolf” in the Manchu language. ③

After 1983, Zhang Jun operated a lime kiln for a time, but most people in his hometown remember he went into the leather goods business: according to them, he was witty, had connections everywhere, and was willing to do anything. He was one of the first people in the village to leave and do business outside, after which he seldom returned for any period of time. Roughly ten or so years ago, Zhang Jun took his youngest brother along with him, leaving only the family’s second son Zhang Zhi at home to care for their parents. ④

After coming to Beijing, Zhang Jun seemed to move from one job to another. While chatting with some of his earliest followers, he would often remark on how difficult life was when he first arrived in the capital. What is known for certain is that by 2005, Zhang Jun had become one of An Yuan Ding’s most important employees, and was beginning to make a name for himself in Beijing’s private security sector.

In 2005, Yu Zhiyun, general manager of Beijing Sheng’an Weijia Security Company, set up a human resources department on the main business street in Majuqiao Town, located in Beijing’s Tongzhou District. This department was run by a man from Hebei Province, known only as Old Li. The department occupied the space of only a single shopfront, and it had only one task: to recruit guards for An Yuan Ding. ⑤

Zhang Jun attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony on the day the human resources department opened for business. As he prepared his scissors, he noted that he “had to borrow someone’s car to get here, so embarrassing.” ⑥

But by this point, An Yuan Ding was clearly expanding rapidly. In Beijing alone, An Yuan Ding had about a dozen human resource departments recruiting guards for them, and middlemen companies were acting on their behalf in provinces with heavy external migration, such as Shaanxi and Hebei. At the department headed by Old Li, “Guards had to be at least 165 cm tall, and each new recruit would earn us a 300 CNY commission. Usually, we could send 100–200 guards to An Yuan Ding each month.” ⑥

People came and went very quickly in the security business, an open secret that speaks to some of the ill practices that have long plagued the industry, with no signs of change. “New recruits have their IDs confiscated and are only paid after they’ve completed their first month of work. In fact, very few people manage to finish the first month, since the company will always be able to find some excuse to fire you, and because you broke their rules, you aren’t eligible for pay, and someone else will immediately take your place.” ⑥

A former An Yuan Ding guard wrote online about his short time at the company. Upon reporting for work, the company took away his ID, ostensibly to check if he had a criminal record. The company also held half a month’s wages as deposit, as well as 200 CNY for uniforms. After a month of work, he received 300 CNY in actual wages. Working at the company was very tough, and employee turnover was high. Anyone who had been at the company for more than three months could be considered a veteran.

Zhang Jun had trouble making ends meet when he first took the helm at An Yuan Ding. In 2006, the company only had 857,000 CNY in total assets, and income after tax stood at -122,200 CNY. A year later, the company’s total assets grew to 1,169,700 CNY and finally began to turn a profit with an income of 152,600 CNY. Coming out of the red was a small step for the company, but this was hardly enough. ⑦

In the end, even An Yuan Ding’s partners were not immune to the company’s extreme cost-cutting measures: “The commission was 300 CNY per recruit. The agreement was that we would be paid after ten days of work, but many of us were terminated after less than ten days for some reason or another, so we didn’t receive any payment. They even wanted to con us out of less than ten days’ pay.” ⑥

After a while, both Yu Zhiyun and Old Li cut ties with An Yuan Ding. In 2008, Old Li opened a new human resources department at Cunzhuang Borough, opposite the Jiujingzhuang Reception Centre. Soon afterwards, Zhang Jun came again to partner with him, but this time the tables had turned: Zhang Jun now had his own car and looked radiant.

The list of accomplishments An Yuan Ding managed to achieve in six short years was quite stunning. The company was named in 2007 as one of China’s top ten influential security services providers by a panel of 12 agencies, and in 2008 it was certified as a Grade A business by the Beijing General Security Service Company.

Meanwhile, Zhang Jun had completed his complete takeover of the company. In October 2006, not long after he became the company’s legal representative, and after several rounds of equity transfers, Fu Guoyou sold his shares in the company. Zhang Jun bought out Fu’s shares for 300,000 CNY, and with the only other major shareholder now gone, Zhang Jun had become the indisputable majority owner of An Yuan Ding (the other four shareholders had each only invested 50,000 CNY). This imbalance in ownership only continued: on 14 November 2008, An Yuan Ding’s registered capital rose to 1 million CNY, with Zhang Jun contributing 800,000 CNY, and the other four shareholders’ contributions remained the same. 

“Special” guarded transport services: a lucrative new business.

In May 2008, An Yuan Ding established a new division: guarded transport services. Their mission was simple: to eliminate headaches for local governments by detaining and deporting petitioners. The company had found a long-term, low-cost, high-return, and zero-risk business model, and it seized the opportunity.

Zhang Jun even told Zhang Zhi, the family’s second son who was still farming potatoes in Weichang County, about this newfound mone-ymaking opportunity. As Zhang Zhi recalls, “Life used to be very hard, but in 2008 my older brother’s company set up their guarded transport division, and petitioners who came to Beijing from all over the country were all sent there. They had massive operations: five bases in Beijing in addition to their headquarters, and another branch in Shanghai.”

Officially, the company was comprised of ten divisions, but financially the other nine divisions were almost non-existent. The guarded transport division was the company’s only moneymaker, and this was reflected in their official structure: this division was listed separately from all the others, and was headed by a full-time deputy manager of the company.

The guards of the transport division wore dark blue uniforms and “spec ops” caps, with white-on-black chest patches that read “special operations”, and arm patches that had the words “BEIJING SECURITY” in English circling the An Yuan Ding logo. Petitioners would often mistake these guards for special police.

From the beginning, the transport division was commissioned by the various regional representative offices in Beijing to “hold onto” petitioners, by telling them that they were being taken to a place with room and board. At first, they were taken to hotels, then warehouses, and these eventually became “black prisons”. In the company’s view, “holding” and transporting were part of the same business. Petitioners were detained according to the clients’ orders; after two days of “holding” (in a black prison), if the client requested deportation, the transport division would immediately send people to come and escort the detainees back home.

The company would charge for each of these services. Both “secure handling” and “enforcement” cost 200 CNY per person, which could be upped to 300 or 400 CNY for no apparent reason. Transports cost extra: for deportation on trains, guards cost 500 CNY per person per day; transport by road costs 12 CNY per kilometre, with an additional 300 CNY for each guard and driver.

“Enforcement” was defined as follows. When petitioners were brought to An Yuan Ding’s command centre, all of their personal items would be checked, and cigarettes, knives, phones, and IDs would be confiscated. The petitioners would be told to cooperate; if they refused, additional “enforcement” measures would follow, which would cost extra. Before “enforcement”, the company would usually phone clients for instructions; if instructed to do so, the guards would begin the beating. ⑩

If a petitioner resisted being taken away, four guards would grab the petitioner’s arms and legs, throw them into the car, and lie to them: “Don’t be afraid, we’re from the National Public Complaints and Proposals Administration, we’re here to deal with your problems.” According to a guard who worked for An Yuan Ding, “We would often go to the bus terminal near Yongdingmen, where many old people who had come to Beijing to petition would be sitting. When local representative offices called us, we would go there, grab the person, and throw them into the car.”

In the beginning, An Yuan Ding’s transport division only had a dozen or so guards, three or four cars, and an old bus. Two vans were soon purchased, which could each seat 11 people. Eventually, as more and more people needed to be detained, the company began renting vehicles and hiring new employees. 

In early 2009, An Yuan Ding was contracted by the government of Guizhou Province to transport two busloads of petitioners back, which brought in 300,000 CNY for the company. At this point, An Yuan Ding had 17–18 cars and more than 30 drivers. Soon another 10 minivans were added, each seating 7 people. Currently, the company has three 51-seat buses, three 24-seat and four 27-seat minibuses, six 7-seat vans, as well as an assortment of other smaller vehicles.

As the number of employees increased, the division became organised like a small army: the organisation included a political officer, a group leader, three squadron leaders with two to three companies under each squadron, and seven or eight guards in each company. 

“The total number of guards and drivers in the transport division was around 200, including those on rotating duty, and those in charge of security checks. Everyone was housed together behind the An Yuan Ding reception centre in two-storey houses, which made the environment quite lively. The rooms had bunk beds like in the military, with either eight or ten people to each room. There was also a rule: within the transport division, no romantic relationships were allowed.” ⑩

An Yuan Ding had now unlocked a whole new way of making money by detaining petitioners, which brought in massive profits. At the end of 2008, the company’s registered capital stood at a mere 1 million CNY; a mere six months later, this figure jumped tenfold to 10 million CNY, with Zhang Jun contributing 9.8 million CNY.

According to annual data from the Beijing Bureau of Commerce, An Yuan Ding’s annual revenue in 2007 was 8,619,300 CNY, but grew to 21,000,420 CNY in 2008. All of the company’s greatest achievements came after this year. Currently, the company employs more than 3,000 guards.

However, Zhang Jun was not content doing business in this single dimension. Even though the business was massively profitable, it was also replete with risks, since media reports, internet articles, and petitioners’ accounts had all begun to detail how the company beat people up. Feeling the need that things needed to be toned down a bit, he began telling his employees to try to refrain from violent means: violence would do them no good, since the more petitioners that come, the more money they make. ⑩

Meanwhile, Zhang Jun registered two new companies in 2008: Beijing An Yuan Ding Culture and Media, Ltd., and Beijing An Yuan Ding Li Security and Technology Services, Ltd. The latter company’s business operations covered the following: technological services, contracted labour services, temporary worker referrals, translation services, and sales of fire safety equipment. Judging from the transfer of equity, this company was established primarily to groom Zhang Jun’s son Zhang Xuesong for the business. According to registered data, Zhang Xuesong began working in Beijing after graduating from middle school, and he is currently the manager of An Yuan Ding’s sales division. His investment in An Yuan Ding’s new subsidiary is 100,000 CNY, second only to Zhang Jun’s amount.

By now, the 47-year-old Zhang Jun had transformed from his beginnings as a potato farmer in Weichang County to a successful businessman, serving as chairman of a pyramid-like corporation that covered businesses both respectable and reprehensible. He has led a low-profile lifestyle, almost entirely within the newly furnished An Yuan Ding reception centre building at East Fourth Ring Road in Beijing’s Xiaohongmen District, with very few public appearances.

“They might be employed by the government, but the petitioners are their cash cows”

An Yuan Ding’s first clients were the various regional representative offices in Beijing, but the company had to proactively extend its reach to expand its network into all provinces and far-flung corners of the country. Nowadays the company’s business has boomed, to the extent that its agents can be found even in remote villages in the southern province of Fujian. A transport guard even told us, “We’ve been to Sanya [in Hainan Province] and Yunnan Province.”

This massive reach is all thanks to An Yuan Ding’s sales division. Although certainly not as eye-catching in its name, and coming only second in terms of the company’s structure, the sales division is nevertheless a crucial component in An Yuan Ding’s profitability, helping to connect the company with its clients. 

Within the division are five to six employees in charge of contacting and arranging transport services, all young women who have no problem keeping large amounts of liquor down. These women are each responsible for specific provinces, and their job consists of calling each region’s representative offices and officials and treating them to dinner. They work long hours on commission and usually manage to earn 30,000 to 40,000 CNY per month. ⑩

The sales staff always carry two documents along with them when they go out on business: an “Instrument of Proxy” and a “Special Transport Contract”.

The “Instrument of Proxy” is a disclaimer that reads: The government of ___ City in ___ Province, in accordance with demands defined in the “Guidelines for the expedient interception and return of unauthorised petitioners in Beijing”, hereby requests the commissioned party to return the following number of unauthorised petitioners to their home province.

The “Special Transport Contract” then goes into detail about the services involved, including the number and type of guards involved, the location and dates of commencement and termination of the service, the calculation of personnel and management fees, how these fees are to be paid, and the rights and duties of both parties signing the contract. Fees were calculated for the following four items: guard fees (per person per day), management fees (a certain amount for each kilometre of transport), proxy service fees, and accommodation fees.

As explained by the aforementioned transport guard, “The contract came in three copies: white, red, and green. The white one would be signed by the regional representative offices in Beijing, and if anything happened along the way, this would serve as evidence. The prices were negotiated case by case, and the Beijing representative offices would get a kickback. For example, if you charged the Beijing representative office 3,000 CNY, that office would have their relevant local government reimburse them for 3,600 CNY.”

Services were required to be prepaid: for long-distance transport missions, 80% of the total fees had to be paid in advance, with the remaining 20% to be paid upon return to Beijing. An Yuan Ding learned to protect its interests like this the hard way since there had been instances where its guards collected a huge payment after completing a transport mission and then ran away. Demanding prepayment ensured the company would get paid.

During the annual Two Sessions period in 2010, the Beijing General Security Service Company told An Yuan Ding to change their terminology: “special guards” would now be called “special operations personnel; instead. This was due to two reasons: first, An Yuan Ding’s “special guards” had now become so notorious that they were afraid of people seeking revenge wherever they went; second, the Beijing General Security Service Company may have felt increased pressure from the general public. ⑩

In April 2010, An Yuan Ding installed video cameras in all of its vehicles. A spec ops employee told us, “Petitioners were divided into two categories: unauthorised and authorised. Authorised petitioners were the ones at the National Public Complaints and Proposals Administration, the Tiananmen Precinct, and the Sanlitun Police Substation. The unauthorised ones were sent to the Majialou Reception Centre. The representative offices in Beijing would give us a call, and we would go and pick these people up. We’d secure them, reform their thoughts, and release them after one or two days. Each person would receive 200 CNY per day for living expenses. They were housed in out-of-business hotels that we rented. We’d have someone over to cook for them, and then try to coax them one by one.”

During the peak season, more than one detention centre was needed. Detainees came and went; some were kept for two days, others three. An Yuan Ding had to call each representative office every day to report on the thought reform progress of each petitioner, to determine when to send them back.

It was crucial for An Yuan Ding to collect information from both sides. Zhang Yaochun noticed this during her second stay in one of the black prisons. She recalls, “As soon as we arrived, they would lie to us, telling us to hand over any evidence or materials we had, and they would help refer our cases to the Legal Affairs Commission or the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. Ordinary people would believe them, and line up to try and ask them for help. They would then take the opportunity to tell us, the petitioners, that doing so was a one-way journey: either we go back and never return, or we stick it out to the end and come back again and again.

“At first I didn’t quite understand what they meant, it felt like they really wanted to help us. They said that they were trying to ensure our safety and many of us believed that. They also said that if you return again and again, your local government officials will receive a bad rating from the central government. Because this will impact their future careers, they will eventually be afraid and have no choice but to help you. Only later did I realise this was all just lies.”

Zhang Yaochun realised that An Yuan Ding was in the business to make money: “They had no interest in maintaining stability, in fact, they would lose all business if society became stable. They might be employed by the government, but the petitioners are their cash cows.”

Nevertheless, these cash cows would often be injured. “Before Lunar New Year in 2009, a group leader in An Yuan Ding’s transport division broke the bones of an old woman when he grabbed her arm while beating her. After she returned home, she sued the guard who beat her. The company left the guard to fend for himself, and he was sentenced to two years in prison.

“After the group leader was sentenced, we never beat anyone up again,” says a spec ops guard who witnessed the group leader’s arrest, still resentful about the company’s indifference.

Methods would have to be changed if the company was to truly realise that petitioners were the source of its profits. Zhang Jun told his employees, “First, petitioners need to trust us. Do not beat people when transporting them, otherwise they won’t return. Second, representative offices in Beijing need to trust us. We need to guarantee that we will be able to catch them and return them home without incident.” ⑩


①: Beijing Bureau of Commerce, registration form for Beijing An Yuan Ding Trading Company, Ltd.

②: Phone interview with Zhang Zhaohua.

③: Interviews with village branch party secretaries and residents in Chezi Village and Jinzi Village, Weichang Town, Weichang County.

④: Interview with Zhang Jun’s younger brother Zhang Zhi.

⑤: Interview with Beijing Sheng’an Weijia Security Company general manager Yu Zhiyun.

⑥: Interview with Old Li of An Yuan Ding’s human resources department.

⑦: Beijing Bureau of Commerce, operational performance of Beijing An Yuan Ding Security and Defence Technological Services, Ltd.

⑩: Interview with anonymous guard currently working for An Yuan Ding.

: Interview with anonymous guards who took part in deporting petitioners from Guizhou during the Two Sessions period in 2009.

: Interview with anonymous An Yuan Ding driver.

: Beijing Bureau of Commerce, documentation of An Yuan Ding equity transfers

: Beijing Bureau of Commerce, Fengtai District branch, registration data for Beijing An Yuan Ding Security and Defence Technological Services, Ltd.

: Interviews with officers at the police substation and criminal police division in Weichang Town.

: An Yuan Ding’s “Instrument of Proxy” obtained by Southern Metropolis Daily reporter.

: An Yuan Ding’s “Special Transport Contract” obtained by a Southern Metropolis Daily reporter.

: Interview with Zhang Yaochun

Part III—The outsourcing of “maintaining stability”

In June 2010, Dai Yuequan and another petitioner from Chongqing who had been detained by An Yuan Ding found a “black prison” on the outskirts of Beijing’s Tongzhou District.

How did An Yuan Ding and local governments conspire to kidnap people by contract? How did the task of “maintaining stability” become outsourced? What were the “black prisons” like? Does this count as the market economy at work, or was this the privatisation of public authority?

The website of the public security bureau of Shanghang County in Fujian Province acknowledges that the local government has contracted An Yuan Ding to detain and transport petitioners, the only local government in the country to publicly acknowledge the fact. However, the head of the Jiuxian Town people’s congress told us, “This didn’t necessarily reduce our problems, because our budget for maintaining security actually increased after we contracted An Yuan Ding.”

Contracts with the government

Located in the southwest of Fujian Province, Shanghang County is one of the 23 counties in the Central Soviet Zone where the Communist Revolution began. Despite its famed history, the county itself is not as famous as one of the companies headquartered in the county, Zijin Mining—or rather infamy, in light of the mining company’s acid spill incident in July 2010.

On 18 May 2010, the website of the Shanghang County Public Security Bureau released the following update:

“On 29 March, 18 women originally from Jingmei Village in Jiuxian Town who had married into families outside of their home village travelled in two groups to Beijing to petition, their concerns being the allocation of original shares in Zijin Mining. On the evening of 2 April, five of the petitioners were approached by police near Tiananmen, and were sent to the Majialou Reception Centre. Here it was discovered that they had come to Beijing to petition. On the afternoon of 3 April, the other 13 petitioners were also approached by police near Tiananmen, of whom 11 were later sent to Majialou. At midnight on 3 April, the Beijing An Yuan Ding public security company was contracted by a task force sent by the Jiuxian Town Government to forcibly transport the 16 petitioners back to Shanghang County, where they arrived at noon on 5 April.

“After the 16 petitioners were returned to Shanghang County on 5 April, the county’s public security bureau immediately dispatched police officers to investigate. After gathering sufficient evidence, the police decided to place under security detention those who had twice travelled to Beijing’s Tiananmen to petition, and were detained at Majialou before being returned: Lin ___qin, Weng ___jin, Huang ___, and Lin ___ were each sentenced to 7 days’ detention; Zhong ___fang, Lin ___feng, and Lin ___ying were each sentenced to 8 days’ detention.”

This update was intended to commend those involved in the mission, but it inadvertently revealed the secret that An Yuan Ding did indeed kidnap and transport petitioners on behalf of local governments.

Even though An Yuan Ding’s “Instrument of Proxy” and “Special Transport Contract” stated that all business was to be conducted in accordance with the law and governmental policies, no legal provisions exist to allow such conduct. According to the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, Article 37, Sections 2 and 3, “No citizen shall be arrested unless with the approval or by the decision of a people’s procuratorate or by the decision of a people’s court, and arrests must be made by a public security organ. Unlawful detention, or the unlawful deprivation or restriction of a citizen’s personal freedom by other means, is prohibited; the unlawful search of a citizen’s person is prohibited.”

Furthermore, according to the Regulation on the Administration of Security Services, which came into force on 1 January 2010 as dictated by State Council Order No. 564, signed by Premier Wen Jiabao, companies offering security services had to comply with the following: security guards are prohibited from restricting personal freedom, physical searches, verbal or physical abuse, and removing or confiscating personal IDs and property. They are forbidden from obstructing officials conducting public duties. Also, they are prohibited from debt collection, or the use of violent or coercive means to deal with conflicts.

A 36-hour journey through the night to deport petitioners back to Shanghang

Nobody at the Jiuxian Town Government would blink an eye at such illegal business. An official surnamed He, whose jurisdiction covered Jingmei Village, told us, “Women from this town will cause a massive security headache for the capital if they go there to petition, and it is simply the responsibility of local governments to transport them home.”

The “massive security headache for the capital” involved roughly 30 women who originally hailed from Jiuxian Town, but were stripped of their original shares in Zijin Mining because they had married outside of town. Prior to the Two Sessions, they had already appealed to higher and higher regional governmental authorities, but to no avail, and thus they decided to travel to Beijing to petition their case. As soon as they arrived in Beijing, a task force sent by the county government also followed them, led by the head of the county’s letters and calls bureau, and a deputy secretary in charge of legal affairs in the county government. 

These women had come to Beijing for the first time. Some of them were confronted by the police and sent to the petitioners’ reception centre, and the local representative office in Beijing was notified to take them back. The others, including Lin Liping and her five-year-old daughter, went to stay at the Hexiang Hotel near the Taoranting Park. In the evening, the task force from Shanghang County came to the hotel and demanded that the women return home, but the women refused.

Some 20 minutes later, when the women were getting ready for bed, someone knocked at the door.

“Who is it?” Lin Liping asked.

“Room check,” the person on the other side of the door answered.

When she opened the door, four “spec ops” guards from An Yuan Ding demanded that they hand over their IDs and mobile phones.

After the guards collected IDs and phones from each woman, they pointed to the door and said, “Get your stuff and follow us.”

Lin Liping asked, “Who are you?”

“We can’t tell you.”

“Where are you taking us?”

“We can’t tell you.”

Each woman was escorted by two male guards onto an An Yuan Ding transport vehicle waiting outside, where they were then scanned from head to toe with a metal detector.

Lin Liping could no longer contain her anger, and asked them again, “What are you going to do to us?”

“We can’t tell you,” the guards said sternly. ②

The An Yuan Ding transport vehicle drove through the night and day, and it finally reached Shanghang County in Fujian Province after 36 hours.

Two months later, when the women went to petition in Beijing for a second time, they met the entire same fate as they did the first time: the county government collaborated with An Yuan Ding to bring these “security risks” home. The only difference was, this time they were put into detention upon their return.

A group of women was put under security detention for eight days, including 29-year-old Lin Xinfeng. The charge: after they engaged in an unauthorised petition at Beijing’s Tiananmen region in February, they were given an educational reprimand, but they decided to engage in another unauthorised petition in April and were sent to the petitioners” reception centre upon discovery and deported home.

After she was released, Lin Xinfeng asked the town government what the legal basis was for their detention. If their issues were not resolved, they would go and petition again.

The town government official threatened her, “If you go and petition again, we’ll send you directly to reeducation through labour.”

The Shanghang County Public Security Bureau was satisfied with the result of the two missions to “maintain stability”. The public notice on their website is the first and only public acknowledgement of the fact that local governments are indeed contracting An Yuan Ding to transport petitioners.

However, the high costs involved had to be paid by the town government. Liu Jiahui, the deputy secretary in charge of legal affairs, denied that he had taken part in these operations. According to him, he was not sure how much they cost.

As the head of the Jiuxian Town people’s congress told us, “This didn’t necessarily reduce our problems, because our budget for maintaining security actually increased after we contracted An Yuan Ding.”

“To begin with, you’ll need to get in touch with some higher-ups in the Beijing representative offices”

An Yuan Ding is, in fact, not the only company in the business of detaining and deporting petitioners: there is a market for this kind of business, with a lot of money to be made in it. On 25 November 2009, an article in Xinhua News Agency’s Outlook Weekly cited an authoritative report that pointed to 73 “temporary relocation sites” set up by various provincial and municipal governments in Beijing. Of those, 57 (or 78%) were operated by prefecture-level local governments, 46 were non-business venues (such as houses rented out by farmers), and 27 were hotels, inns, and guest houses that did operate as normal businesses. However, it is unknown if the 73 sites mentioned in the article include any of An Yuan Ding’s “black prisons”. 

We met an An Yuan Ding squad leader in July 2010, at a café in the Jianwai SOHO complex in central Beijing. Sitting across from us, the squad leader talked about how to set up a company like An Yuan Ding: “To begin with, you’ll need to get in touch with some higher-ups in the Beijing representative offices and have a good relationship with the people in the petitioners’ reception centres. Whenever they have an unauthorised petitioner, you contact their regional governments and ask if they want them to be escorted back…”

So, absolutely no technical skills involved, right? But the following example illustrates that you need a bit of a background to make your way into this industry. The day after we met the ambitious squad leader, Lin Yongliang, a 59-year-old man from Chongqing’s Tongliang District, took us to look for the “black prison” he was held in a year ago.

In August 2009, after he had filed his petition at the National Public Complaints and Proposals Administration, he was apprehended by four Beijing representative office staffers. They took him into a van, where he was viciously beaten and stomped on by four men. They beat three of his teeth out of his mouth, two of which disappeared in the van; when he yelled for help, the third tooth fell out, and he hid the tooth in his clothes to serve as evidence.

After the beating, a staffer named Zhou Yong pointed at him and said, “So you’re going to tell on us? Let’s see where you can go this time!”

When the van arrived at the black prison, located at No. 10 Bangzijing in Fengtai District, Lin Yongliang was bleeding out of his mouth, nose, and eyes. Even the guard at the black prison thought this was too much: “How could the representative office people be so savage, this is totally unacceptable.” He had to report this to higher-ups in the company, to keep them out of trouble.

Lin Yongliang spent five days in the black prison. Because the media were tipped off by other petitioners, the head of the black prison hurriedly relocated the remaining detainees to other locations. After five days, he was escorted back to Chongqing.

Between March and August 2009, Lin Yongliang was detained three times in two different black prisons, including one run by An Yuan Ding, for a total of 17 days.

Black prisons tipped off repeatedly

Lin Yongliang quickly found the black prison at No. 10 Bangzijing in Fengtai District because he remembered the address quite clearly. This was a traditional farmhouse with a central courtyard, and the street-facing side of the complex was currently leased to a Zhejiang Province-based fire safety equipment company. The lady storekeeper remembered the poor souls who had been kidnapped here, but she kept mostly to her own business. 

The black prison was inside this courtyard complex and hidden by a surrounding wall. The prison had two floors, each with a hall and five rooms. The prison was now deserted; a full-length mirror still stood in the hall on the first floor, with “Beijing Security” written on it. All the windows of the building were sealed with wooden panels and further stuffed shut with blankets. The air was filthy and mouldy inside the pitch-black, sealed rooms. Scattered on the floor were clothes that detainees did not have time to collect when they were suddenly relocated, as well as empty instant noodle wrappers. On the windowsill of one of the rooms on the second floor sat two pieces of paper, on which was written the name and home address of one of the detainees. Because this particular prison was suddenly evacuated, a black security guard cap with a national seal embroidered on it still hung from the iron bar gate on the first floor.

When we asked local residents living near the black prison about who had rented the place, Lin Yongliang recognised one of them: it was the director of the black prison when he was detained there, a man surnamed Yuan.

Director Yuan was the leader of a security guard team under another company, Jingdu Qiangye Security Services. He admitted that the courtyard complex had just been leased to them last year for a total of five years, “to serve as a security base for the petitioners who’ve come here from around the country… You could say this is illegal, but you could also say that it’s not.” Three months ago, the company decided to cease this segment of their business, because someone had tipped them off to the media, and the security base was folded. Like An Yuan Ding, Jingdu Qiangye was also under the purview of the Beijing General Security Service Company, but An Yuan Ding was larger by far. According to Yuan, after the tipoff, the base was evacuated, the business was halted, and he left the company as well, now working as a security guard in a local region.

An Yuan Ding had to be confronted with the same fate as well. The company had previously rented the Chian Cheng Ya warehouse in the south of Xiaohongmen Village in Beijing’s Chaoyang District, which was used to detain petitioners, and 200–300 people were detained here at its peak. Because of media attention after a tipoff, the prison was quickly abandoned.

The internet is full of accounts of An Yuan Ding’s misdeeds. Mao Yuanze, a 63-year-old from Li County in Hunan Province, reported his illegal detention in one of An Yuan Ding’s black prisons to the Xiaohongmen Police Substation and Chaoyang District Public Security Bureau, but he has never received an official response.

An Yuan Ding looms large, even amid competition

One of Zhang Jun’s chauffeurs told us, “To do this kind of business in Beijing, good connections and money are everything.” Just last week, he was sent by Zhang Jun to pick up a director of a certain public security bureau’s internal security division for a business meal. 

The chauffeur said, “There are indeed other companies competing with us, but we’ve basically cornered the market.”

When asked about petitioners reporting the company to the police, the chauffeur noted that even if the police did come to investigate, it would never amount to anything.

How many local governments have signed contracts with An Yuan Ding, as we have seen in the case of the local authorities in Jiuxian Town, Shanghang County? It is impossible to know since such information is not publicly available. However, with “market demand” for such services so high among local governments, and so few others filling in the gap, all the evidence suggests that An Yuan Ding has long had a business presence in all corners of the country.

When an An Yuan Ding guard met with our reporter, he told us, “Just last morning we were treated to a meal by a public security bureau chief from Ordos [in Inner Mongolia], and an executive from a corporation. They treated us because they needed someone to deal with petitioners. Two managers from the sales division drove us there, and they told them to simply call us whenever they needed us, we”ll have everything taken care of and get those people back home.”

The article in the 25 November 2009 of Outlook Weekly outlined three methods that regional representative offices in Beijing employ to handle petitioners: the offices themselves rent houses or hotels to serve as temporary holding sites pending return, and office employees are placed in charge of the petitioners; or the offices hire security companies, who are in turn responsible for renting locations and guarding petitioners; or the offices hire delinquent people, and put them in charge of finding locations and guarding petitioners. Petitioners call these temporary holding sites “black prisons”, since many have had their IDs and phones confiscated, their freedom deprived, and some have even been tortured and beaten.

“Even with regional representative offices in Beijing now all abolished, the need is still there. Now they might not be called “representative offices in Beijing”, but rather “security companies” instead, and their task is to maintain stability.” All 146 offices representing local governments in Beijing, and 436 county-level representative offices in Beijing, are supposed to be abolished before the deadline on 20 July 2010. However, according to Li Gang, owner of the newspaper Zhu Jing Zi Xun, the abolition of these offices will not prevent An Yuan Ding and others from continuing their lucrative business.

With Beijing representative offices gone, public authority has been outsourced

A few days after the deadline, Li Gang is sitting in front of his computer in his office in Beijing’s upscale Beichen Green Home complex, checking the final layout for the Di Xun Wang website that will soon go online.

A commotion comes from the adjacent room. Li Gang says, “In the room are a few former representative office heads. I’ve invited them here to discuss how the website will operate in the future.” They have now become shadow officials, continuing to do what they always did.

Li Gang notes the elimination of representative offices has led to the marketisation of the various security companies: “I see that many of the reception centres are now run like businesses. I take someone in and send them back, you give me money.”

Because Zhu Jing Zi Xun has mountains of information on the representative offices, security companies have been coming to Li Gang either to seek collaboration or to find new business opportunities. Just an hour before our meeting, someone gave Li Gang a suggestion: “You should develop software to maintain stability, as soon as something negative begins to gain traction on the internet, no matter where the news comes from, it will immediately show up in the software…”

“The county-level representative offices in Beijing used to function as the first line of defence in maintaining stability. As soon as these were gone, the security companies stepped in, which means that public authority has simply been outsourced to private companies.”

A massive grey industry has developed around the petitioning phenomenon in Beijing, covering all aspects including their room and board, “abduction,” “detention;” and deportation. More and more companies like An Yuan Ding are finding their way into this industry to capture a share of the profits.

In the eyes of Zhang Qianfan, a law professor at Peking University, the public authority that these private companies embody is truly shocking. Zhang is also a constitutional scholar and a professor at Peking University’s School of Government, and he serves as the standing deputy director of Peking University’s Institute of Constitutional and Administrative Law, and the vice director of the Association of Constitutional Law.

“From what we have seen, this has been a serious violation of the law. First of all, this marks the privatisation of public authority and the degradation of the principles that public authorities should follow. Moreover, these companies have many delinquents in society under their employ, and as such we can see them as having mafia-like characteristics. We’re now seeing the legitimisation of private power, as these mafia-like organisations obtain legal status as enforcers of public authority.”

Zhang Qianfan further notes, “As soon as the floodgates are opened and this gets copied everywhere, the consequences are unimaginable. The most severe consequence is that this tramples upon fundamental civil rights, which will no longer have any legal protection. Furthermore, since this does not address the root of the problem, the more they try to maintain stability, the more unstable society will become. There’s also the issue of legal and illegal forces becoming even more entangled than they already are: private control can become public authority, and public authority can be delegated to private entities. This will lead to public authorities becoming more mafia-like in China, and underground methods will become legitimised.”

The evolution of black prisons

Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications instructor Xu Ping (not his real name) first came to notice An Yuan Ding around 2008. Black prisons were already operating on a substantial scale at the time, with detainees from all provinces being kept at the Juyuan Hotel, Jinwan Hotel, and numerous other black prisons in Fengtai District.

According to Xu Ping, prior to 2003, petitioners were mostly held at deportation centres. These held three types of people: beggars and panhandlers in the city; rural farmers who had come to the city to find work, by far the largest category (these were captured and detained by random); and petitioners.

Xu Ping says, “The petitioners were segregated into what was called a “sick bay”. At first I didn”t understand what that meant; they said it meant that they were “sick in the head”. Old petitioners would often be held at the deportation centres or sent to mental hospitals. They could make a fortune out of this business, and this evolved into a massive industry.”

Xu Ping has observed that “intercepting petitioners” became common after 2003. Once interceptors began to appear at a substantial scale, the roots for black prisons had already begun to take shape: it might take some time before intercepted petitioners could be returned, so they would either have to be held at the representative office, or at a temporary rented location. This was the beginning of the black prisons.

As the number of petitioners coming to Beijing increased in 2006 and 2007, interception methods became more standardised as operations grew in scale. A series of procedures began to develop, such as how to have the petitioners’ registration forms rescinded, or how to intercept people.

According to a Xinhua News Agency report in June 2010, Inner Mongolia Secretary for Political and Legal Affairs Xin Yun noted that in Inner Mongolia alone, more than 300 million CNY had already been spent that year to resolve societal conflicts, and 315 regional government officers and 21,320 local officers had been sent to actively resolve societal conflicts among the populace. Documents detailing responsibilities for maintaining stability, general governance, and receiving complaints had to be signed at all levels of government in Inner Mongolia, and maintaining stability now accounted for 16.7% of civil servants’ performance reviews, up from 6%.

Constitutional scholar: An Yuan Ding-style “security maintenance” disregards the rule of law

In Prof. Zhang Qianfan’s opinion, An Yuan Ding and other companies have appeared as a result of local governments seeking to maintain stability: “The governments themselves most certainly do not have the means to maintain security, so they hire private companies to do the job. These private companies are citizens themselves, so you have a group of citizens targeting another group of citizens.

“This is a very dangerous approach to maintaining stability. This totally disregards the rule of law, and so the more you try to maintain stability, the more unstable things will become. First of all, the root of the problem still remains. Do you think these people will call it quits after they’ve been deported back? If their problems persist, they’ll continue to travel to Beijing to petition. If the systemic root causes behind the petitioners’ actions are not resolved, they will continue to petition, which will only lead to more and more travelling petitioners. As more and more petitioners travel to provincial capitals or Beijing and get transported back, this will only cause even more pressure. When governments at all levels don’t have the means to handle them and resort to private companies in disregard of the law, this may cause further injustices and infringements against private citizens. Therefore, this will directly cause more instability the more they try to maintain stability, pushing ever greater waves of trouble.”

Prof. Zhan continues, “No institution, including the local representatives in Beijing, has the right to restrict citizens’ personal freedom. After the Sun Zhigang incident in 2003, the Regulation on Custody and Repatriation was abolished. A major reason behind the abolishment was because it violated the Legislation Law, since it became a legal regulation of the State Council without being passed by the People’s Congress or its Standing Committee. The situation we’re now in does not even have the backing of a State Council regulation, much less any authorisation by the People’s Congress or its Standing Committee.

“According to the Legislation Law, any measures that restrict personal freedom must be conducted through public authorities, and never through private institutions. As a current example, forced evictions and demolitions often rely on local criminal gangs, which has caused massive problems. The difference between legal and illegal force is that when acts of public authority are carried out by private institutions, there is no legal protection for these procedures. Acts restricting personal freedom or dispossessing property must be carried out by public authorities in accordance with the law–because the law defines a set of procedural protections for the public authorities in question. When these powers are delegated to private institutions, these legal protections cease to exist, which leads to severe encroachment of fundamental rights.”

Even as the constitutional scholar offers his opinion, the fact is that very real problems are still waiting to be resolved. Zhang Yaochun, the former female police officer from Guangxi’s Hepu  County, who is now a citizen of the People’s Republic of China with no official citizen status, is currently in hiding. Since she has already gone to petition multiple times, and been detained and deported by An Yuan Ding multiple times as well, the local public security bureau has signalled that she is to be sent to re-education through labour. 

After being released from security detention, the women from Shanghang County held their papers detailing their administrative punishment, their hearts full of rage. Even though they were warned that they would immediately be sent to re-education through labour if they attempted to petition again, they said they are already preparing for their next journey: “We will petition and protest until the bitter end, and we will not stop unless our complaints are resolved.”

Xie Qiming in Wuxi is still waiting for a reply: two months ago, he received a call from a person ostensibly from the Beijing Public Security Bureau’s security management division, to confirm some details in his accusations against An Yuan Ding. He has not heard from them since. 

Southern Metropolis Daily reporter Long Zhi, and intern Yang Yibei, reporting from Beijing, Guangxi, Fujian, Hebei, and Hunan