Apr 02, 2013 06:24 PM

A Day in the Life of a Beijing 'Black Guard'


(Beijing) – After receiving his wages late, a 30-year-old we'll call 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 a notepad in which he recorded details of more than 40 trips he made between Beijing and Guangdong Province, including dates, addresses and reimbursement figures.

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 people who had come from the southern province to Beijing to file petitions and then escort them home. There were 20 or 30 others doing the same job he was working under the same supervisor, and there were more than four supervisors providing the service to officials from all over Guangdong stationed in Beijing.

He referred to his profession as "helping the government handle affairs." The more popular job title is "black guard," a unique profession that comes in tandem with China's petition system.

Chinese citizens can file petitions about their grievance with 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 used as a yardstick for performance evaluation, prompting local governments to use every means possible to stop petitioners and shuffle them home. It has become an open secret that local governments hire "black guards" in the capital 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 out of concern 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 had a new understanding of what he had been doing. To him, it had been a violation of both the law and his 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 100 retired teachers in Guangdong over issues regarding their retirement pay. The educators 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 family name Shao, who acted as a supervisor for a team of black guards, 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.

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