BEIJING >> Membership in the Chinese Communist Party has many advantages. Officials often enjoy government-issued cars, bottomless expense accounts and the earning potential from belonging to a club whose members control every lever of government and many of the nation’s most lucrative enterprises.
There is, however, one serious downside. When party members are caught breaking the rules — or even when they merely displease a superior — they can be dragged into the maw of an opaque Soviet-style disciplinary machine, known as “shuanggui,” that features physical torture and brutal, sleep-deprived interrogations.
And that is exactly what appears to have happened to Bo Xilai, once one of China’s most charismatic and ambitious politicians. Bo has not been seen in public since mid-March, when he was stripped of his position as party chief of the sprawling municipality of Chongqing in southwest China. He was later accused of “disciplinary violations,” and removed from the Politburo.
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.
Although the leadership has not disclosed details of its investigation into Bo, insiders say it involves a number of allegations, including corruption, spying and obstructing justice on behalf of his wife, who has been implicated in the death of a British businessman, Neil Heywood.
Two people who have been briefed said Bo’s troubles had been compounded by his effort to rise to the top levels of power and protect himself by currying favor with the military. In addition to inquisitors from the party’s commission for discipline, the army’s political division is playing a role in the interrogations, the sources said.
By contrast, the case against his wife, Gu Kailai, is being handled as an ordinary criminal matter, according to several people who have been briefed on the investigation. On paper at least, China’s criminal justice system has far more safeguards against abuse.
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 Chinese 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, 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 Bo are unlikely to be made public or lead to formal charges.
“It’s as if you’ve fallen into a legal black hole,” 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.
“In the end I was so exhausted, I agreed to all the accusations against me even though they were false,” said the man, 48, who asked for anonymity because he hopes one day to regain his government job. The man said his detention was orchestrated by his boss, who was angry that he had tried to interfere with his nepotistic hiring practices.
There are few official studies of the detention system, but according to Xinhua, the state news agency, more than 880,000 party members were punished under it from 2003 to 2008. It is unclear how many of them were expelled from the party, but the Xinhua report said only 25,000 officials were criminally prosecuted. The Communist Party has 80 million members, or about 6 percent of China’s population.
Bo made abundant use of the system in Chongqing during his crackdown on criminals and those he deemed political opponents, leading to thousands of arrests and a number of executions. Among the party members targeted were Peng Changjian, a former deputy police chief who, according to the official news media, died of a heart attack during his interrogation, and Chen Honggang, Chongqing’s traffic police chief, who reportedly died after smashing his head against a wall.
All the investigations are carried out by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, whose decisions must be approved by senior leaders.
One recent high-profile case involved Liu Zhijun, a former railway minister whose downfall was precipitated by a deadly train crash in the eastern city of Wenzhou last July. In announcing his expulsion from the party last month, the state media described Liu as “morally corrupt.” Beyond pocketing bribes of more than $157 million, Liu was also said to have had a dozen or so mistresses.
In another case, Xu Maiyong, the former vice mayor of Hangzhou, was executed last year after he was convicted of embezzling more than $32 million.
Getting out of line in other ways can also lead to such investigations: Lu Jiangbo, the director of a village in Fujian province, was sentenced to 11 years in prison after organizing a protest against illegal land seizures.
A number of Chinese legal scholars say the system is not unlike the overseas renditions and detentions that the United States uses in its battle against terrorism.
Though he finds the coerced confessions disturbing, He Jiahong, faculty director of the Renmin University Law School in Beijing, said shuanggui, by operating apart from local courts that are easily manipulated by party officials who control their funds, was a vital tool for fighting corruption.
“Although we do criticize shuanggui for being outside the legal framework, it is quite effective,” He said. “As the saying goes, all they need is a piece of paper, a pen and their mouth.”
Given the widespread hatred of official graft, it is hard to find much grass-roots sympathy for those caught up in the system.
In a rare glimpse, the authorities invited a blogger, Chu Zhaoxian, to tour a modern-looking shuanggui facility in April 2011. The images he posted online — which were later deleted by officials but made available to The New York Times — showed rooms with “advanced instruments” that can supposedly detect lies and interrogation chambers with padded walls to “prevent accidents.”
“I have heard that all corrupt officials who are summoned to the investigation facility have their contemptuous behavior exposed,” Chu wrote. “Do not be invited here. If you come here, your days will seem like years.”
Some still doubt, though, whether the terror associated with the interrogation system is an effective deterrent.
“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.”