Torture, solitary confinement and coerced confessions are rife in investigations of Chinese Communist Party officials detained on suspicion of corruption, according to a report issued Tuesday by Human Rights Watch that analyzes one of the most secretive aspects of China's one-party system: the supervision of its own party members.
One former detainee told the rights group that he was deprived of sleep for 10 days and beaten to keep him standing. A defense lawyer said prosecutors sought confessions of specific amounts of bribery to meet anti-corruption quotas.
Others described cadres being whisked away without warning to hotel rooms with padded floors and windows modified to prevent suicides. They were held there without contact with the outside world for weeks, until confessing to accepting bribes, real or imagined.
Four years into Chinese President Xi Jinping's sweeping war on corruption, rights campaigners warn that widespread use of “shuanggui” - a system of detention and interrogation of party cadres at off-the-book sites outside of the criminal justice system - is undermining the very rule of law that top party leaders say they are trying to strengthen.
Probes by the party's feared internal anti-graft investigators hit 330,000 in 2015, more than double the figure from 2011, before Xi took power, according to official news sources. The 2015 figure implies that 33,000 to 66,000 cases involved the shuanggui interrogation practice, assuming it was used in 10 to 20 percent of all cases, according to a Human Rights Watch estimate. The group wants the system abolished.
Corruption plagues Chinese politics, and Xi's vow to severely punish both “tigers” and “flies” - high- and low-ranking corrupt officials - has mostly been cheered by China's fed-up public. But the opacity of shuanggui, which by design operates unchecked by the courts and police, has raised concerns that some officials have been targeted as a result of intra-party feuding and personal rivalries rather than legitimate corruption claims.
Shuanggui came about in the 1990s as the Communist Party grappled with expanding corruption in its ranks. Investigators argue it is necessary to interrogate suspects in secrecy because probes could be influenced by informal political networks inside the party.
Under Xi, emboldened anticorruption investigators from the party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, or CCDI, have reached into the most sensitive arms of the state, the judiciary, military, banks and the media, casting a pall over vast swaths of China's state sector. But officials are particularly “terrified at the prospect of being put in shuanggui,” said Human Rights Watch China Director Sophie Richardson.
In 2014, The Associated Press published rare interviews with local officials from China's Hunan province who said they had been abused while held under shuanggui, including city land bureau director Zhou Wangyan, who said he was whipped, forced to eat excrement and physically tortured, his legs pushed apart until his thigh bone snapped. He confessed to accepting $6,600 in bribes, but said he was being set up by the city's then-party boss.
“The idea of combating corruption is extremely politically popular, and that makes sense ... it's a huge problem,” Richardson said. “But the use of this party system for which there is no legal basis and which yields evidence of extremely dubious credibility and that tortures people along the way is deeply problematic.”
Human Rights Watch said it analyzed 35 detailed cases involving shuanggui reported in the media since the start of Xi's anti-corruption campaign. Close to 40 more cases from a large database of court verdicts were analyzed, and the group interviewed four former detainees and more than a dozen lawyers and prosecutors to glean a picture of the system in which party members are detained and interrogated in almost every city and jurisdiction. Relatives are often detained as well.
From 2010 to 2015, the organization found reports of 11 people who died while under shuanggui, although it is unclear whether those deaths were the result of mistreatment or suicide. Human Rights Watch cited an internal party circular as saying interrogation rooms should be on the ground floor to reduce the risk of suicide, while former interrogators described not giving out chopsticks after one detainee fatally stabbed himself in the nose.
In recent years, the Communist Party has made efforts to combat torture and improve judicial transparency. Evidence obtained through torture must be excluded in criminal proceedings, but shuanggui is not covered by these legal provisions.
As part of a new transparency initiative, since 2014, Chinese courts have published millions of verdicts in an online database. The database showed that from January 2014 to November 2015, roughly 1,700 cases cited evidence obtained during interrogation under the shuanggui mechanism, while 90 of the verdicts - nearly all of which were guilty - acknowledged the use of “torture to extract confession,” Human Rights Watch said.
Neither the CCDI nor the Ministry of Public Security responded to faxes seeking comment on the new report.
Those who endured the system have also shied away from discussing it, since the party has zero tolerance for whistleblowers. Two other Hunan province officials who spoke to the AP in 2014 about being tortured in shuanggui were subsequently arrested and sentenced to 13 and 20 years in prison on corruption charges. Zhou, the ex-land bureau director, was later arrested again and is now awaiting sentencing.