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Natalie Thomas

For Some Chinese Cadres, A Grisly End

prison doors open
(Via Bigstockphoto)

In the popular mind, the life of an official in China is often associated with easy money, privilege, and a position high above the reach of the law. But there is one word in this world of easy living that can make even the most complacent official choke on his sea cucumber, and that is shuanggui – the process by which cadres suspected of serious breaches of party discipline, including acts of corruption, are investigated.

The term “shuanggui” (双规) is well known in China. A search for tweets containing the word calls forth almost 3.5 million comments on Sina Weibo alone; Baidu Baike, China’s Wikipedia equivalent, has an entire entry on the subject. Yet there is little information in the public domain about how this shady process for meting out discipline is actually administered. However, an article published in June in the South Review (南风窗), a Guangzhou based magazine, provided a rare glimpse into the system responsible for bringing the Communist Party’s wayward comrades to book. The story was also later featured on China’s main micro-blogging portal Sina before being deleted from both locations.

The article describes a system viewed on the one hand as “the sharpest weapon for fighting corruption” and as a “fatal black hole” on the other.

It describes how this veiled system carries out its investigations in secret locations such as hotels, military bases, and even ordinary houses. Inside the rooms where interrogations take place, all sharp corners are wrapped in rubber. First floor rooms are also often chosen to prevent suicides. The interrogators are unknown to each other before they begin working on the case.

Shuanggui, which can be translated as “dual designation,” refers to the power of investigators to summon party officials for questioning at any time at a location of their designation. The process lies outside the Chinese legal system, and as a result, basic guarantees which theoretically exist in the rest of the legal system do not apply. Those who enter the bowels of shuanggui find themselves totally isolated from the outside world, and are denied legal representation.

Little is known of how investigators go about extracting the confessions which frequently emerge. Suicides and mysterious deaths while under shuanggui are not uncommon. Former detainees report being subjected to simulated drowning, beatings, and cigarette burns.

In recent months, several cases of extreme brutality under shuanggui have appeared in the public domain. In April, the death of Yu Qiyi, a chief engineer at the state-owned Wenzhou Industry Investment Group who was shuanggui’ed” upon suspicions of receiving a 2 million RMB bribe (about US$320,000) from a local company CEO, caused shock online when pictures emerged of his bruised and swollen body. Just a few weeks later, Jia Jiuxiang, a Henan court official who had found himself caught up in a property-related graft investigation, also died whilst in the custody of shuanggui. Official claims that Jia died of a heart attack were rejected by his family, who stated that he had no history of heart problems.

The predecessors to shuanggui can be traced back to China’s imperial justice system, where offending officials were subjected to a different, sometimes more severe set of punishment than lay people. From the party’s point of view the secrecy and vagueness surrounding how today’s shuanggui operates is exactly what makes it so effective, as the system’s mystique adds to its capacity to instill fear in the hearts of officials. Meanwhile, the fact that all investigations are carried out behind closed doors prevents embarrassing secrets, which would damage the reputation of the party, or those higher up the pecking order, from leaking out.

Given the opaque nature of this extrajudicial system and reports of abuse, many within human rights circles have long called for reform to the system. However, as most victims of the process are publicly considered villains themselves, broad-based demand for changes to the shuanggui system lack an interest group to support them. User comments on a story investigating the complex business interests surrounding Jia Jiuxiang’s fall from grace reveal how mixed public opinion is. In the eyes of one commenter, “If all the executive directors and vice directors from every Chinese court [who almost invariably are members of the Communist Party] were shot, it would not be an injustice to many.” However, another user asked: “How can it be that the power of the Discipline inspection committee is greater than all other departments? It’s not transparent, not open, and it sits above the law.”

Recent events have left some hoping that the beginnings of reforms could be on the horizon. Hong Kong University law professor and shuanggui expert Flora Sapio told The Guardian in April that the fact that there has been sympathetic coverage in Chinese state media of the deaths of officials like Yu Yiqi and Jia Jiuxiang “could represent a high-level decision to begin addressing the rights of detainees while leaving the system fundamentally unchanged.”

The South Review article also sees hope for the transformation of shuanggui in an announcement of two new regulations announced by Wang Qishan, the new “anti-corruption tsar” in the Politiburo, at the end of May. These regulations could potentially lead to a more transparent system, with well-established rules to prevent cases of fatal abuse from happening again.

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Natalie Thomas

Natalie Thomas is a Chinese studies graduate from the UK currently working as a multimedia producer in Beijing. When not out in the field filming, she is on weibo watching events unfold in China's online sphere.