A Day in the Life of a Beijing “Black Guard”

After receiving his delayed wages, thirty-year-old Wang Jie decided to change professions.

On March 7, he pressed a fingerprint onto a receipt that read: “Today I have received settlement of the 12,000 yuan in wages owed to me by Mr. Shao.”

“Actually it was short by over 1,000 yuan,” said Wang, flipping through his notepad on which he had recorded the over forty trips he had made between Beijing and the southern province of Guangdong, including dates, addresses, and reimbursement details.

Over the past year, Wang was stationed near the Guangdong provincial government’s Beijing bureau near the capital’s western Third Ring Road. His job was to help Guangdong officials detain those people who had come from far away Guangdong to Beijing to file petitions and then escort them home. There were twenty or thirty others doing the same job and working under the same supervisor, and there were more than four supervisors providing the service to officials from all over Guangdong stationed in Beijing.

Wang referred to his profession as “helping the government handle affairs.” The more popular term for what he does is “black guard,” a unique profession that comes in tandem with China’s petition system.

Chinese citizens can file petitions about their grievance to so-called letters and visits offices of various levels of government organs and courts, a mechanism set up in the 1950s. Under the current system, the number of petitions filed during an official’s tenure is deemed a yardstick for performance evaluation, prompting local governments to try every means to stop the petitioners and shuffle them home. It has become an open secret that local governments hire “black guards” in the capital city to stop petitioners from filing a grievance, thus reducing the number of petitions that are recorded.

To some extent, this is sanctioned by the central government. It is understood that officials from local governments limit the number of petitioners coming to the capital at any given time out of concerns for social stability. Because local governments can afford to keep only so many employees in Beijing, their offices often resort to hiring people like Wang, to “persuade the petitioners to return home,” sometimes by force. Thus, a strange industry has emerged in Beijing, surviving upon an institution bent on preserving stability at all costs.

When Wang quit his job, he came to a clear conclusion about what he had been doing. To him, it had been a violation of both the law and his own conscience.

“We’re Pretty Civilized”

Wang was hired in 2009 as a “temporary worker” to stop petitioners.

His first job was to prevent a collective petition by more than one hundred retired teachers in Guangdong over issues regarding their retirement payments. These teachers had come to Beijing, where they were met by members of their local government, who escorted them back to the province.

Usually, petitioners are met by at least twice as many guards as they have people in their group. A man with the last name Shao, who acted as a supervisor for a team of black guards, once did not have enough people so he decided to hire some temporary hands. Wang was introduced by a friend. The assignment was completed with little resistance and Wang found the job normal.

“Almost everybody who’s done temporary labor jobs in Beijing has been a petition-stopper at some point,” said Wang.

When Wang returned to Beijing from his home in Henan province to find work last year, he got in touch with Shao and became a full-time petition-stopping guard.

Like many of his coworkers, Wang is from Henan’s city of Pingdingshan. Most were in their twenties, had dropped out of middle school, and then came to Beijing to find work.

As petition-stoppers, they had three main tasks: detaining people, supervising them, and escorting them back home.

The first stop in their duties usually involved the reception rooms of organizations like the State Bureau for Letters and Calls (SBLC), the Supreme Court, and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate. Petitioning Citizen Assistance and Service Centers in the Beijing suburbs, where petitioners are gathered and divided into small groups, are among their usual destinations as well.

There are usually two scenarios that play out when a guards stops petitioners. The first is “preemptive”—officials in a local government have received information about petitions, and either inform their office in Beijing or make the trip to Beijing themselves with a group of guards to cut the petitioners off at the SBLC or other government offices before a petition can be filed.

The second scenario is “after the fact”—once a central government department has received a petition, they will first inform the Beijing bureau of the province in question and then the prefectural and county-level bureaus. The prefectural and county-level bureaus then hire guards to come over and pick up the petitioners. If the petitioners arrive in a major or sensitive area, such as Tiananmen Square, to make a so-called improper petition, they will first be sent to assistance service centers, where workers will call the Beijing bureaus of various local governments to fetch them. Employees of local governments’ Beijing bureaus will then bring a group of guards with permission forms from the petition center to enact “separation procedures” and receive the petitioners.

Wang described the whole process in several steps: after identifying each petitioner, the guards first approach them and ask that they get into a car, saying that officials from their home have made the trip to Beijing specifically to resolve their problems. Most petitioners, however, are unwilling to enter the car. If the locale is crowded, like the entrance to the SBLC, it is not convenient for the guards to simply grab people and carry them away. Instead, they wait for the petitioners to leave on their own and follow them to their lodgings, where guards again ask them to get into cars. Usually two guards are assigned to one petitioner, but the number could grow depending on the level of difficulty. If the person refuses to cooperate, the guards simply grab them by the arms and legs and force them into the car. “Usually we don’t hit anybody,” Wang said.

If they can buy a train ticket back to the petitioner’s home on the same day, the guards will escort them home immediately.

But railway tickets are always hard to get in China. The supervisors of black guards need to grease palms to get tickets, sometimes from the black market at inflated prices. During major holidays, it is nearly impossible to buy train tickets, and some petitioners are held in Beijing for a few extra days. When this happens, government workers lodge petitioners in small hotels, where guards watch over them. Wang said he could make 100 yuan per day watching petitioners.

“You could say we’re pretty civilized,” Wang said.

Wang said local governments in Guangdong have adequate funding to pay for this kind of “maintaining social stability.” Even the hotel accommodations foisted upon unwilling petitioners by Guangdong local governments are pretty decent, Wang said.

Most petitioners forcibly escorted home become extremely agitated. Wang said that for every ten petitioners he brings home, seven threaten suicide and beg to be allowed to leave to resolve the issues for which they came to Beijing.

“Usually I would get on the phone and call some ‘leaders’ over to talk with them,” Wang said. He decided never to hurt people, and claimed he never hit a petitioner. “But in this industry, there are no limits.”

When petitioners come from provinces less prosperous than Guangdong, officials who cannot send them home directly have them sent to “black prisons” run by black guard companies. Many petitioners sent to such facilities say they have been beaten during their stays. In autumn 2010, news broke that a firm called Anyuanding Security Co. of Beijing built a “black prison” and held prisoners. The public was angered and Anyuanding was soon closed. However, this company was but the tip of the iceberg.

In most circumstances officials in local governments’ Beijing bureaus contact their home base to have people sent to the capital to escort petitioners home, usually with the help of hired black guards. Wang has traveled on everything from the cheapest hard seat tickets to first-class cabin berths during the execution of his duties. When petitioners have come in large groups, Wang recalls scenes of 300 to 400 people altogether—petitioners, government officials, and guards—at which times his employers have had to book an entire train car.

For smaller groups, guards are split into teams of two, one sleeping and one watching over petitioners, who must be escorted even to the bathroom. At every station stop, the two guards will split up and cover either exit of the train car to prevent escape. If a single petitioner gets away, not only is there no pay, but the guard must pay for the entire operation out of his own pocket, Wang said.

There are generally many more guards than petitioners, so even in the instances when fighting breaks out, guards are seldom injured. But Wang did once see a colleague scratched so badly by a female petitioner that his face was covered in blood. The guard quit on the spot. “In this line of work, these are risks that you should be willing to assume,” Wang said.

The job is considered complete only after petitioners have been escorted to their final destination and handed over to local officials. Wang said the usual fee exacted from local governments for this service is between 1,200 to 1,800 yuan per petitioner. A guard can expect to be paid around 600 yuan per trip, the rest going into the pocket of the supervisor, who is also responsible for issuing kickbacks to local officials to secure future business.

Changing Impressions

In the beginning, Wang was satisfied with his work. “It was relaxed and had some freedom,” he said. When not hurried by his supervisor to return to Beijing after finishing an assignment, he often spent a few days traveling around Guangdong. In his best month, Wang earned over 5,000 yuan, and on average he took home about 4,000 yuan a month. Often, he felt honored for “being of service to the government.”

“Leaders,” or local governments’ Beijing staffers, explained to him that it was only proper that these Beijing-bound petitioners, who were either bypassing the official system or making illegal petitions, be sent home.

But as he had more contact with the petitioners, Wang’s views changed. “Over 70 percent of them had just grievances to make,” said Wang.

One petitioner who left a deep impression on Wang was an elderly man from Sichuan province. His eighteen-year-old migrant laborer son had been killed in a fight in Shenzhen, but the guilty party had been sentenced to just ten years in prison. The over sixty-year-old father’s repeated trips to Beijing to plead for justice weighed heavily on Wang’s heart.

Wang said most of petitioners from Shenzhen come over land disputes. “The government sells the people’s land, taking for itself the lion’s share and giving the people almost nothing. Wouldn’t you call that unjust?” Wang asked.

He discovered that the line separating petitioners and black guards sometimes became extremely thin. In some instances, people who had come to Beijing to plead their cases ended up becoming black guards themselves just to make a living. But more importantly, he agreed with the petitioners.

Wang enjoyed talking with petitioners on his southbound train trips, and he even became friends with some. He came to realize that he sympathized with many petitioners. “They’re trying to maintain their rights, to supervise the government. If nobody does that, their problems will eventually become your and my problems too.”

The Game Goes On

An altercation at the end of 2012 convinced Wang to leave this profession.

Near 8:00pm one night, an official from the Beijing bureau of a Guangdong local government brought Wang and another guard along with a dozen or so local Guangdong police to a Beijing petition center to pick up a forty-year-old female petitioner. A fight broke out between the guards and petitioners, during which a petitioner was injured and called the police. Both sides were brought to a police station.

Wang explained to the police that he worked for the Beijing bureau of the Guangdong government, but nobody, not his supervisor or any officials from the bureau, was willing to confirm his connection. After being detained overnight, at noon of the second day, a Beijing policeman gave Wang 5,000 yuan in cash. The policeman would not reveal who had sent the money, but said Wang was to give it to the injured party to settle the matter.

Wang realized that at the end of the day, he was being used. “If there’s ever trouble, everybody denies knowing you.”

The central government has long been aware of how the petition system has been manipulated and has wanted to bring it under control. In March 2008, the Communist Party’s Central Committee published a document outlining the procedures for compelling improper petitioners to return home. The document required that officials from the Beijing bureaus of local governments not exhort the petitioners to return home or haul them away. The document also paved the way for the establishment of “separation centers,” or petitioner assistance and service centers.

In July 2010, the State Council, China’s cabinet, shut down the Beijing offices of 146 city-level and 436 county-level local government bureaus. Not only was the measure aimed to reduce government expenditures, but it was also intended to reduce petition-stopping practices. However, by reducing the number of local government officials in the capital, central leadership succeeded only in forcing local governments to contract out the bulk of their petition-stopping.

In the wake of the public scandal over Anyuanding Security’s “black prison,” in November 2011 the Beijing city government began a six-month campaign to clean up the security industry. The stated goal of the campaign was “zero petition-stopping.”

The result was that without qualified companies or individuals to undertake the “black guard” profession, cooperation between local governments and security companies became even more secretive. The practice continued, and local governments’ staffers simply refused to acknowledge their connections to the black guards.

Since 2010, prosecutors in Beijing’s Daxing District have tried six cases involving illegal detention of petitioners, in which at least thirteen guards were implicated. But when police departments requested interviews with personnel from the Beijing bureaus of local governments involved, most officials avoided being investigated by leaving Beijing.

In June 2012, a court in Changping District sentenced nine people involved in operating a black jail. They were convicted of operating an illegal business and of illegal detention. The verdict, however, was kept so secret that even the plaintiffs, several petitioners who had been detained in the black jail, did not know it.

Caixin reporters asked employees of the Beijing bureau of the Guangdong provincial government to clarify the bureau’s relationship with supervisor Shao and his employees. The bureau’s representative, who refused to be named, denied ever hiring guards, and added that he “was not clear” what officials from lower administrative levels in Guangdong had been doing.

On March 8, Wang left Beijing with the last of his pay in hand. That was a busy day for Wang’s colleagues, because it was the start of the annual sessions of the National People’s Congress. Thousands of black guards were sitting on folding chairs along the street, patiently watching for petitioners. On the streets of the capital, the cat-and-mouse game between petitioners and black guards continued to play out.

Law, Politics, Society