What constitutes a police state?

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.

The Discussion: 20 Comments

a police state is where the police invites you to coffee

in your post is interesting too see how China is used to point out the deficiencies and malfunctions of police and legal systems in the US

we could consider China to be contributing in its own special way to solve these deficiencies

China’s contribution to world civil rights and democracy?

June 15, 2012 @ 1:16 pm | Comment

This post is going to get tu quoque’d up the wazoo. You were tripping over yourself stipulating to American shortcomings in this regard, but I doubt that will help.

What I found most interesting is that Chinese netizens (insofar as they can be used to reflect popular Chinese opinion…and that may not be very far) were so disgusted with corruption that they are willing to turn a blind eye to some very disturbing practices. It’s also telling that this extra-judicial mechanism is being defended as a better way to bring corrupt officials to justice than the justice system itself, because the justice system is perceived to be corrupted for the purposes of protecting those who are corrupt. I’m not sure what it says about people’s opinion of the CCP, when they are compelled to feel that torture is the preferred way to move forward…but I don’t imagine it’s anything good.

June 15, 2012 @ 1:22 pm | Comment

“Shuanggui (pronounced shwang-gwei) . . . “


Seriously, I totally hate it whenever people try to turn Pinyin into an ‘easier’ form that’s actually just as likely to be mispronounced as the original. If there was an ‘easier’ form people would already write it like that!

June 15, 2012 @ 3:24 pm | Comment

One of the things that’s always troubled me about the “police state” in both the US AND China is how good they are at creating a feedback loop to justify their own existence.

Case in point: look at how failed drug policy and failed population policy have created two mutually reinforcing enforcement loops that constantly eat at the social fabric. Both policies get in the way of basic human desires that appear victimless–the desire to get high, and the desire to have more children. Both rely on draconian enforcement that criminalizes otherwise victimless behavior. Both create underground economies and provide convenient justifications for security budgets.

I could go on, but the point is these things are what eventually causes a government to break its social contract–not because the people at the top are intrinsically corrupt, but because once started these behaviors spread like cancers… feeding off the same “nutrients” that “organs of honest governance” do.

In this regard, an independent media, judiciary, shuanggui system–they all are means to an end–to act as an independent check, an immune system, that keeps the body of government healthy and functioning in the right direction. Of course, debating the details of which of these devices functions better is something that would take days, but it is important to not lose sight of these things as valuable for what they are.

June 16, 2012 @ 12:30 am | Comment

John Woo’s movies have gone downhill but he’s far from a monster. You mean John Yoo.

June 16, 2012 @ 1:28 am | Comment

Typo — thanks Mac.

June 16, 2012 @ 1:54 am | Comment

To T-co,
I disagree mildly with a few things you said, though I agree with most of it.

First, I wouldn’t say illicit drug use is “victimless” as a blanket statement. I think there is a gradation there, but do think it is silly to treat “soft” drugs like marijuana in the same way as “hard” drugs like coke and heroin. However, prohibition and prosecution as opposed to regulation and taxing the crap out of it certainly bring on the societal issues you mentioned.

Also, i wouldn’t characterize an independent media and an independent judiciary as being on the same level as black jails and secret torture in terms of checks and balances on a system of governance. I don’t think of a system of governance that is held in check by the former 2 as being inherently unhealthy, whereas I do think of a system that can only be held in check by the latter 2 to be fundamentally flawed.

June 16, 2012 @ 2:25 am | Comment


I’d have to disagree on the drug use part–even someone shooting heroin in a back alley is creating less of a victim effect than the lowliest shoplifter. Of course, one could argue that heroin abuse leads to people committing other crimes (with victims), but the proper response is to encourage treatment for the heroin abuser rather than just locking them for a crime which their heroin use may make them likely to commit.

(For the record, I’m a huge fan of preventive as opposed to retributive policing. Results of an entire winter quarter hanging out with cops, dealers, and crack addicts as a public policy professor’s research assistant while studying at the University of Chicago.)

As for comparing a media/judiciary with shuanggui–I agree, I drew the comparison a little too far. But given China’s current situation, any restriction on the behavior of Party members is better than nothing. I do agree that it’s important to evolve the self-regulatory mechanisms in a more transparent, more law-based, more impartial manner, however.

One idea I have heard from a friend whose family is close to the Party Central Secretariat (党中央书记处) is putting live webcams into the offices of most county-level officials, to enable citizens to literally watch their local officials work 24/7. He followed it up with a joke about putting the Beijing taxi microphones into their government cars as well, though, so I wasn’t sure how seriously to take him.

June 16, 2012 @ 2:58 am | Comment

Re: the policing, I mean using softer, macro-level methods aimed at prevention, as opposed to harder, micro-level methods aimed at retribution.

For example, with drug policy, I think it would be great if the government simply required mass yearly licensing of drug dealers, on an auction basis, as opposed to trying to target them on a whack-a-mole basis.

That way, if the government wanted to reduce the flow of drugs onto the streets, it could simply lower the number of licenses awarded each year (forcing dealers to bankrupt themselves in bidding wars for remaining licenses).

If the government didn’t want kids to buy drugs, it could simply make it so that dealers would lose these tremendously valuable licenses by being caught selling drugs to kids.

Then the police could be focused on rogue dealers who continued to operate outside the system… and licensed dealers themselves would have lots of incentive to try and snitch as much as possible on unlicensed ones.

June 16, 2012 @ 3:05 am | Comment

Possession of drugs should be decriminalized if not legalized altogether. Proof of this approach leading to less crime and corruption can be seen in societies like the Netherlands. To me it’s a no brainer. Where I might draw the line is crystal methamphetamines, which cause immediate and life-threatening health risks and can lead very quickly to death or dangerous behavior. But let’s start with pot. No one should ever go to jail for possessing a weed that’s effects on the body are less serious than tobacco’s or alcohol’s. It’s crazy. Our laws regarding cocaine are also badly in need of an overhaul, as they make the punishment for poorer people who are more likely to buy crack cocaine far harsher than the “regular” cocaine typically used by college students and others with greater disposable income. In other words, it’s more often used by white people. Something is so wrong with our war on drugs, and the killings and unconscionable imprisonments could be wiped out overnight. The war on drugs is America’s greatest failure, leading only to more crime, including massacres in Mexico and incredible corruption among Latin American governments. There is no benefit, only victims, all at an outrageous cost to taxpayers.

But we seem to have drifted a bit off topic.

June 16, 2012 @ 3:08 am | Comment

To T-co #8:
that would be a great idea. Use CCTV (ie closed circuit) to monitor the party cadre, and broadcast it on CCTV (ie. Chinese Communist). Heck, start a new CCTV station just for that. And of course with online feed.

June 16, 2012 @ 5:04 am | Comment


Your repeated snide comments about Guantanamo are getting wearisome. Most thinking, educated people by this point recognize that the issues involved are very difficult and very serious. In a war, the Government can kill and detain the enemy at will. If a state is not engaged in a war but just fighting crime, criminals are entitled to due process. Is the conflict with al qaeda and its affiliates a war or a criminal investigation or something else? President Obama and the State Department Legal Advisor, Harold Koh, apparently find this to be a very difficult problem, as did President Bush before them. I suspect you would, too, if you spent a little time reading the literature and thinking about the issues.

China is not facing any such quandry. No foreign group has declared war on China and killed 3,000 of its people. All of the problems that China faces are purely political disputes (dissent) or ordinary criminal matters (like corruption). How many dissidents in the US or politicians opposed to the ruling party have been tossed into prison in the US, denied due process, repeatedly tortured, etc? I must have missed the stories about President Bush having Cong. Pelosi waterboarded or President Obama having Mitt Rommney kept incommunicado for months. No, there is no similarity between what China is doing and what the US has done. The US has a robust, functioning system of rule of law. It is struggling with how and to what degree that applies in the context of a twilight war against foreign enemies who have already killed thousands of Americans. China has no rule of law of any kind whatsoever. Even ordinary commercial disputes are subject to arbitrary decision by the local Party committee telling the presiding judges what to do. So, please, Richard, give it a rest.


This comment got stuck in my moderation queue and I’m going to briefly address it right here.

My comments on Gitmo are not snide. I hate what we do there and was deeply disappointed at Congress’ refusal to close it down. Where is the snideness? I never said the government cannot take whatever legal action is necessary to combat terrorism. The key word: “legal.” Torture is not legal and is not permissible. There are aspects of how “justice” has been carried out by post-911 America that that I believe are not legal and definitely should be questioned, especially the torture of prisoners in Gitmo who are later found to have done nothing wrong and are released. The US, I’ve always said, does have a functioning if often flawed legal system and I applaud the rule of law and freedom of speech here, usually. I always, literally always, criticize China for not having any meaningful rule of law and draw a contrast as to how things are done in the US. Not perfect, but the US does offer recourse to those accused, again usually, and they can have their cases heard and hold media interviews, etc. I keep saying usually because in post-911 America there have been some egregious exceptions, but all in all our system of laws and checks and balances is infinitely more sound than China’s. It is just too bad that some of those laws don’t apply when it comes to Gitmo and dark prisons, where American values have been compromised by Americans who have brought shame to the nation. Yes, we are struggling with how to deal with possible terror suspects, but torture and deprivation of habeas corpus are not the answers.

June 16, 2012 @ 5:27 am | Comment

It’s been a while since I’ve read anything on your website. I think we both actually have quite a bit of affection for the natural beauty of China and the many warm, generous people we’ve met there. We probably also share a desire to let people all over the world live a life of good health, peace and some degree of personal fulfillment, whether we personally know them or not. I have, however, come to realize that all of this bluster about the corruption, moral depravity and insidious character of the Chinese government is for naught. Not that it’s not accurate, but any meaningful change is not only not imminent, but quitely likely, impossible. The rest of the world, along with the uninformed Chinese masses, enables the hegemony of ruthless central power and corrupt provincial/local power. As long as the west continues to value commerce over the value of human life, nothing will change, no matter how much lip service is given to these issues.

June 19, 2012 @ 2:31 am | Comment

I don’t disagree with you about the “bluster” being for naught, i.e., I certainly don’t expect to change anything by posting about it. But it is a story worth telling, especially when we get an article like the one referenced in this post, which offers a personal story of the world of China’s secret jails and methods of extracting “confessions.” And I try to make clear that this is not solely unique to China.

June 19, 2012 @ 2:47 am | Comment


I appreciate your response, but I still don’t think you see the issue. Let’s put the waterboarding aside for the moment. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that waterboarding is illegal whether of detainees in a war or criminal suspects, even to discover where the next, ticking bomb has been planted. Where does that leave us?

Your comment about “deprivation of habeas” suggest that you believe that the detainees at Gitmo are criminal suspects and thus deserve to be treated the way we treat criminal suspects – with Miranda rights, habeas, etc. But that’s my whole point – if they are enemies captured in a war, we can detain them to the end of hostilities, and they have no habeas rights, no Miranda rights, no right to counsel, etc. They only have the right to be treated humanely, which is a pretty minimal standard. The fact that they might also be suspected of committing war crimes is interesting, and may subject them to criminal liability, but doesn’t change their legal status or our right to hold them for the duration of hostilities. We are not holding them because they are suspected of committing crimes. We are holding them because we captured them engaged in a war against us. That is the law of war.

On the other hand, if we are not fighting a war, and if they are just criminal suspects, then they have the rights to a Miranda warning, counsel during interrogation, habeas, a speedy trial, etc., and can only be held if there is probable cause to think they committed a crime.

A lot of academics think the current conflict with al qaeda is somewhere in between war and peace and that we need new rules from Congress going forward. That may or may not happen. The Democrats resolutely opposed any effort to create a new statutory regime when President Bush was in power. I don’t think President Obama has proposed any legislation, and I don’t know how it would be received if he did. I’m pretty sure that one of the reasons he’s dropping drones on al qaeda fighters and killing them outright rather than capturing them is doubts about the current legal situation for prisoners.

I hope I’ve explained where you seem to have gone off track.

June 19, 2012 @ 11:02 pm | Comment

To Doug,
I agree with you insofar as saying that criminals should be entitled to the rights guaranteed by the criminal justice system, whereas POWs should be entitled to protections as described by the Geneva Conventions. In that sense, criminals can expect to have more rights than POWs.

But as you acknowledge, this current “war on terror” is not a war in any conventional sense, so even the experts are divided as to whether the offenses constitutes war or crime. So if their status is unclear, then how can it be justified that the perpetrators automatically be treated as of the “war” category? If we consider the “war on terror” to be somewhere between war and crime, shouldn’t those captured also be treated according to some ‘middle ground'(which of course is as yet undefined)?

All that notwithstanding, I certainly agree that this is not comparable to the CCP in China, where people who haven’t even committed a crime are subjected to treatment worse than POWs.

June 20, 2012 @ 6:48 am | Comment

And for our laugh of the day, courtesy of Global Times:


“The lowest common denominator of democracy is the way leaders leave power”
Ok, GT, the CCP has achieved lowest-common-denominator democracy status. And there was glee throughout the land, and dancing through the streets.

June 21, 2012 @ 4:52 am | Comment

“We are holding them because we captured them engaged in a war against us.”

Except the vast majority of those held at Guantanamo were not captured under arms. The US government has consistantly refused to treat them as POWs, instead relying on a separate ‘enemy combatant’ status as a way of avoiding giving them the rights they would have either as criminal suspects or as prisoners of war.

June 21, 2012 @ 7:34 pm | Comment

Your comment about “deprivation of habeas” suggest that you believe that the detainees at Gitmo are criminal suspects and thus deserve to be treated the way we treat criminal suspects – with Miranda rights, habeas, etc. But that’s my whole point – if they are enemies captured in a war, we can detain them to the end of hostilities, and they have no habeas rights, no Miranda rights, no right to counsel, etc. They only have the right to be treated humanely, which is a pretty minimal standard. The fact that they might also be suspected of committing war crimes is interesting, and may subject them to criminal liability, but doesn’t change their legal status or our right to hold them for the duration of hostilities. We are not holding them because they are suspected of committing crimes. We are holding them because we captured them engaged in a war against us. That is the law of war.

The issue is whether you consider a state of war to actually exist when one party cannot actually declare war on the other party. If a terrorist somewhere in Somalia rams a boat full of explosives into a US Navy ship, does that mean that a terrorist somewhere in the Philippines, who has never heard of the Somalian organization, is automatically at war with the US? How do you even define the Filipino as a terrorist? Is it the simple criteria of “deliberately plotting attacks to injure U.S. civilians?” Then by that criteria you should also declare war on every individual in the nuclear strategy departments of Russia, China, and Pakistan as well, since that’s their job.

The point is, you can only have a “war on Terror”, not a “war with Terror” because terrorists can’t really declare war on you. Then it becomes pretty amorphous as to who you can call a terrorist or not–and by extension, who you are at war with, and who you aren’t. When you can potentially, unilaterally, get the US to declare war on every single person on Earth simply by a single national security agency labeling them a terrorist, that isn’t a world of peace–that’s a world gone mad.

My point is, treating the long twilight struggle against terrorists in the same legal way you treat a war puts the country in a very difficult position internationally. It opens the floodgates for other countries to do the same and sacrifices the reputation the United States has built for keeping its coercive mechanisms under the rule of law–a reputation Americans have spent the past two-and-a-half centuries building up.

June 22, 2012 @ 4:41 am | Comment

I’ll stay out of the Guantanamo debate, at least for now. This article (or book review by the Economist suggests that the problem reaches far into everyday life in America. If I was one of the guys in Washington D.C.’s north-east, and someone asked me if I thought that I was living in a police state, my reply would come in no uncertain terms.

Unless, that is, if a patrolman asked me that question.

June 22, 2012 @ 9:41 pm | Comment

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