It read like a muckraking expose: A magazine revealed a system of secret detention centers in Beijing where Chinese citizens are forcibly held and sometimes beaten to prevent them from lodging formal complaints with the central government.
But the report appeared in the state-run magazine Liaowang (Outlook), which is written for the government elite and published by China's official Xinhua News Agency.
For some activist groups, the two state-sanctioned articles published Tuesday signal a possible willingness by the Communist leadership to openly acknowledge a problem it has long denied.
"They have categorically denied there are even black jails. This is the first time an official, high-level magazine acknowledges that they exist. This is fairly significant," said Wang Songlian, research coordinator with the China-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders.
Petitioners grabbed off street
Detailed reports about these illegal lockups, known as "black jails," are not new. They have been widely documented by human rights groups, academics and international media.
The victims are mostly petitioners: ordinary Chinese who travel to Beijing and other provincial capitals seeking a resolution to grievances — including corruption, land grabs and abuse — that local officials have ignored. They are grabbed off the street, often by those very local government officials or their agents, and held captive in run-down hotels, nursing homes and even psychiatric hospitals until they can be sent home. Often, police either ignore or actively cooperate with the "retrievers."
But the Chinese government has repeatedly insisted that the unofficial jails don't exist. Two weeks ago, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang flatly rejected a Human Rights Watch report on the detention centers.
On Wednesday, the Foreign Ministry and Public Security Ministry declined to comment on the articles and referred questions to the State Bureau for Letters and Visits, where a staffer hung up the phone.
The two articles, prominently displayed on the home page of Xinhua's Web site, come just a week after President Barack Obama's visit — when he raised human rights concerns — and two weeks after the Human Rights Watch report.
Indication of party thinking?
In China, where media organizations are very tightly controlled and content often censored or restricted, a lengthy piece on a taboo topic is unlikely to have been an accident, say longtime China watchers.
"Coverage in Outlook can be viewed as a direct reflection of decision-making within the central party, and it would certainly be carefully considered," said David Bandurski, an expert on Chinese media at the University Of Hong Kong. "So it is fair to say that party elites are trying to send a message through this coverage of the issue of black jails."
But he cautioned that it remains unclear what that message is and what the government ultimately intends to do.
"We can't say yet how prepared the government is to more widely acknowledge the existence of this problem," he said in an e-mailed response.
While the government has never acknowledged the black jails, Premier Wen Jiabao did say in March that the petitioning system needed to be improved amid fears that unrest from the economic downturn could put more pressure on the system and result in mass protests.
Calling the extensive network of secret jails a "chain of gray industry," the Liaowang reports say their existence "damages the legitimate rights of petitioners and seriously damages the government's image."
They paint a detailed picture of how a whole lucrative industry has sprung up to provide food and accommodation, transportation and repatriation for the petitioners. Local officials pay black jail operators 100 yuan ($15) to 200 yuan ($30) per day for each petitioner held captive, the report said.
One security company manager surnamed Zhang was quoted in the report as saying that his company had been hired by seven or eight different provincial or city governments to provide such services.
Striving for ‘zero petitions’
The report said that there is heavy pressure for local officials to have "zero petitions" from their area, since their performance is linked to the number of grievances filed — a sign of instability — from their locality.
A few Chinese media have written about the issue, most notably the investigative weekly, Nanfang Zhoumo (Southern Weekend). But Liaowang, which bills itself as a magazine offering analysis of political and social issues for the country's elite, is not known for its aggressive reporting.
Wang, of Chinese Human Rights Defenders, said she is hopeful that the articles mean the government is willing to allow more media coverage from newspapers and television on black jails and the abuses there.
"The fact that they have acknowledged this means that other publications will be more open to discussing this topic," she said. "Just by publishing the article, it means we can talk about this issue, at least in a controlled manner. It's no longer a censored topic."
Ultimately, if the articles mark the beginning of more public disclosure about black jails, that could prod the government into action, said Phelim Kyne, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, which recently released a 53-page report on the illegal detention centers.
"It's our hope that the more media elements push the envelope and get greater exposure, the more untenable it will become for the government, and they will take some action against these facilities," he said.