There have been moments when I wondered whether the US was creeping toward becoming a police state. For many minorities in poor neighborhoods, America is a police state, where they can be pulled over and searched at random and then thrown into jail for years for possessing a little pot. For innocent detainees at Gitmo whose “crime” was being in the wrong place at the wrong time, America must indeed look like a police state.
A key difference between the US and certain other candidates for the dubious title is that the victims often get to tell their story and in some instances justice is served. Not always. Not even usually. And that in no way exonerates the fucked-up system that allowed such abuses to happen in the first place. But people’s voices can be heard, and we can debate openly, as I’m doing now, whether something is just or unjust, and we can donate money to the victim’s cause and lobby for justice. The most harrowing descriptions of Gitmo’s victims, such as the brutal treatment of Jose Padilla, can be told on the front page of our newspapers, not that that is much consolation to the permanently traumatized Mr. Padilla.
I was thinking about this as I read this shocking (but not surprising) article in today’s NYT on just how dire the consequences can be for officials in China who win the negative attention of those above them, as Bo Xilai did. I urge you all to read it.
We’ve heard the stories of China’s black prisons and decades of solitary confinement and the lack of any meaningful rule of law to make appeals. (At least the Gitmo inmates managed to get their case heard by the Supreme Court — and by all the major media — though that didn’t help very much.) This article is a grim reminder of just how brutal China can be to detainees who in at least some instances have committed no crime other than to “violate Party rules.
Few who have been dragged into the detention system emerge unscathed, if they emerge at all. Over the last decade, hundreds of officials have committed suicide, according to accounts in the state news media, or died under mysterious circumstances during months of harsh confinement in secret locations. Once interrogators obtain a satisfactory confession, experts say, detainees are often stripped of their party membership and wealth. Select cases are handed over to government prosecutors for summary trials that are closed to the public.
“The word shuanggui alone is enough to make officials shake with fear,” said Ding Xikui, a prominent defense lawyer here….
Shuanggui (pronounced shwang-gwei) is rooted in the ancient imperial justice system and was used by the Red Army to punish wayward soldiers during the civil war. Over the past decade, it has become increasingly institutionalized through party-issued guidelines that have scaled back some of its excesses.
Nonetheless, secrecy, isolation and harsh interrogation techniques remain hallmarks of the system, according to Flora Sapio, a visiting scholar at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Unchanged as well are the main objectives: to extract confessions from those accused of violating party rules, most often through financial corruption.
The secrecy, Ms. Sapio said, is intended to shield the public from details that might harm the party’s image and to limit any collateral damage to those higher up the food chain. If history is any guide, many of the accusations against Mr. Bo are unlikely to be made public or lead to formal charges.
“It’s as if you’ve fallen into a legal black hole,” Ms. Sapio said, noting that those in custody are not allowed to see family members and do not have access to a lawyer. “Once you are called in, you almost never walk out a free man.”
The Dui Hua Foundation, an organization in San Francisco that promotes changes to the Chinese prison system, says simulated drowning, cigarette burns and beatings are common tactics for getting detainees to talk. “The system is just Kafkaesque,” said John Kamm, the group’s executive director.
One former propaganda bureau official from Zhejiang Province who was subjected to interrogation a decade ago said he spent nearly two months confined to a series of hotel rooms. He was whipped with a TV antenna and kept awake for 12 days until he began to hallucinate. The windows were papered over and a red light bulb was kept on 24 hours a day, heightening the disorientation.
And it goes on. I was careful to point out the atrocities in the US penal system and places like Gitmo. A national disgrace. Inexcusable. But I at least understand why monsters like Cheney and John Yoo rationalized torture and barbarism: they felt they were fighting a righteous war against terrorism. They were/are depraved, but at least they can say why they did it (not that I’d ever believe a word of it).
These instances in China are so troubling because they represent a widespread pattern of breaking down perceived enemies, torturing and driving them mad, and leaving them with no recourse such as access to an attorney or even with contact with their family. Their cases will never be on the front page of the People’s Daily, their appeals to the courts will never be covered on television and radio (that is, if there actually were such appeals), their attorneys will never appear on 60 Minutes.
The article points out that many of those interrogated and kept in secret jails were indeed found to be guilty of graft and corruption, and there is little pubic sympathy for them. It also points out how ineffective shuanggui is in deterring corruption: “Shuanggui is useless because corruption is everywhere,” a young official said. “They might shuanggui some leaders, but the new leaders will be as corrupt as the old ones.”
Corrupt officials should be exposed and punished. None should go through prolonged periods of torture and misery to extract confessions. I condemn it in the US and I have for years, just as I do in China.
Read the whole article.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.