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Sinica backgrounder: Doing time in Chinese jails and prisons

1 month ago
Jeremy Goldkorn
he September 29 episode of the Sinica Podcast features an American man who spent more than seven months inside the Beijing No. 1 Detention Center. Ahead of the show, learn more about the intricacies of Chinese law and the stories of people who have encountered it.

In the more than seven months that this week’s guest on the Sinica Podcast spent in a Beijing detention center in 2009, he never had to endure abuse, torture or rape. But Michael Manning and his fellow inmates did face conditions harsher than what they might have in a typical Western jail. Prisoners in China have few opportunities to communicate with their family or anyone in the outside world, access to lawyers is not guaranteed, and, perhaps most unsettling, the rules for how long police may hold suspects without charging them are unclear.

Chinese law “gives the authorities the wherewithal to hold someone in custody for as long as they want, as long as they get the requisite approvals,” explained Joshua Rosenzweig, an analyst at Amnesty International’s East Asia office, who has focused his career on criminal justice issues in China. “The legal time limits are guides, not absolute deadlines,” he said, “and a person has no way to seek remedy via something like a habeas corpus proceeding.”

In mid-2015, more than 1.6 million people — a population that is about the same size as Philadelphia’s — were incarcerated in Chinese prisons, according to the Institute for Criminal Policy Research. Another 650,000 were, like this week’s guest, inmates in detention centers, which, similar to American jails, hold people who are awaiting trial or sentencing, or are serving very short sentences. For a personal story from inside such a facility, tune in to the Sinica Podcast on September 29. Until then, explore the stories and documents below to learn more about the Chinese criminal justice system and people’s experiences with it:

By Jeremy Goldkorn
Jeremy Goldkorn lived in China from 1995 to 2015, working as an editor, publisher and writer in print and digital media. He founded, a research firm, which began in 2003 and was acquired by the Financial Times in 2013. He is an affiliate of the Australian National University's Center on China in the World, and a co-editor of the China Story website and annual China Story Yearbook. He is co-host of the Sinica Podcast, and founder of Great Wall Fresh, a social enterprise to help Chinese peasant farmers run small tourism businesses catering to foreign outdoor enthusiasts. He moved to Nashville, Tennessee, in 2015, and is a board member of the Tennessee China Network.

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