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Dialogue – Issue 35: Death Sparks Debate on Detention Center Operations

In February, “elude the cat” (躲猫猫, duo mao mao) became a popular phrase on the Chinese Internet after 24-year-old Li Qiaoming (李乔明) died from a head injury while being held for illegal logging in a detention center in Yunnan Province. Center officials claimed that, on February 8, Li hit his head running into a wall while blindfolded during a game of “elude the cat” (“blind man’s bluff”) with his cellmates, an explanation that elicited an outcry from Chinese netizens, many of whom suspected police brutality.

To quell skepticism, the Yunnan Propaganda Department invited netizen volunteers and journalists to examine the incident scene. But they were unable to come to any new conclusions due to limited information provided, and the team’s credibility eroded when some “volunteers” were exposed as members of the state media. The Yunnan Procuratorate then announced its own findings, stating that Li had been beaten to death by inmates who concocted the “elude the cat” story as a cover-up.

Some have questioned this explanation as well, but demands for the truth have largely been overshadowed by recommendations for improving the operation and supervision of detention centers. Former Vice Minister of Justice Duan Zhengkun called for transferring the administration of detention centers from public security bureaus to a third party, thus placing a check on possible abuse of police power. Other suggestions include revising detention center guidelines issued in 1990 to make them more legally binding and detainee rights-oriented, and increasing authority of People’s Congress representatives to order investigations of unnatural deaths. The proposals all suggest widespread agreement that supervision of detention centers—now the responsibility of the procuratorate—should be improved.

The effectiveness of supervision is limited without basic checks on police power, and signs of reform in this area have emerged. In March 2008, Renmin University, with funding from the European Union, launched an experimental detention center supervision program in Liaoyuan, Jilin Province. Centers were visited by a specially-trained delegation of members from the local People’s Congress and People’s Political Consultative Conference as well as civilian supervisors from the procuratorate. It is China’s first detention center supervision scheme to involve individuals from outside law enforcement. During the trial period, delegates held meetings with self-selected detainees, inspected detention center facilities, reported rule violations, and followed up later on the center’s progress. With the trial considered a success, there are plans to establish more trial locations in the provinces of Henan and Jiangsu.

Whether such plans can be put into practice on a large scale remains to be seen, but as with conditions surrounding Li Qiaoming’s death, the experience has raised public awareness of detention center conditions and greater concern for detainees’ rights. These are key steps for bringing prisoner welfare into public discourse, which can conceivably provide momentum for lawmakers and common citizens to push for further reform. ■