Tea Leaf Nation

Inside China’s Blackest Box

Even high cadres quake at the term ‘shuanggui,’ an extra-judicial interrogation method that has claimed lives.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

On the afternoon of June 27, the most powerful man in one of China’s largest and most prosperous cities was rudely interrupted in the middle of a Communist Party meeting over which he was presiding. No reliable public record shows precisely what happened next to Wan Qinqliang, the erstwhile party secretary (and thus the highest-ranking politician) of the southern metropolis of Guangzhou, a city of about 11 million. But it’s clear that agents for China’s central government, probably its mysterious Central Disciplinary Commission (CDC), forcibly led him away to a fate that must haunt some Communist cadres’ dreams: shuanggui

Chinese officials, even at the municipal levels, often exercise a great degree of power. But they are also extremely vulnerable to the party’s internal disciplinary machine, particularly shuanggui, extra-judicial interrogations that function outside of the law and thus deny targets even the meager legal protections usually afforded Chinese criminal defendants, including a lawyer. On June 30, central authorities announced that president Xi Jinping’s war on corruption had claimed another prize and that Wan had indeed beenshuanggui’ed.‘ China’s official media reports that Wan "allegedly committed serious disciplinary and legal violations," but gives no details about what his crimes might be or if he will be afforded any form of due process. (Wan joins Su Rong, formerly vice chairman of China’s parliamentary advisory body, and Wang Guangxun, former head of public security at China’s sprawling Railway Corporation, as recent entrants into shuanggui‘s black box.) 

It’s a stunning fall from grace for Wan, a fast-rising politician who at age 50 had already held Guangzhou’s most prestigious and powerful post for about two and half years. Even if those in the party apparatus in Guangzhou were surprised, the term shuanggui is at least known to many Chinese, and is searchable on China’s censored Internet; a query for the term on Baidu, China’s largest search engine, yields over 81 million results. 

Yet little of what appears in Chinese media or on its Internet provides insight into how the famously opaque process is administered. Official media uses the term, but often in quotes, usually with no further explanation of what it signifies. Many grassroots discussions online feature perplexed netizens asking one another what the term actually means. Shuanggui literally signifies "dual designation" — party agents may choose both the time and place of their investigation — but its implementation remains mysterious. 

A June 2013 article in South Reviews, a magazine based in Guangzhou, provided perhaps the most vivid look to date into the shuanggui process. (The piece has been deleted from the magazine’s original site, but persists on other Chinese portals.) It describes the practice as "both a sharp weapon to fight corruption and a deadly black hole." The report cites anonymous "introductions" in revealing that the location for a shuanggui interrogation can include a hotel, a guesthouse, a military base, "and even an ordinary home," though the report states hotels are probably the most common. Lin Zhe, a professor at China’s Central Party School, which trains cadres, told the reporter that sharp surfaces in those hotel rooms are usually covered with rubber "to avoid accidents." Party rules released in 2001 creepily urge location in single-floor units, usually on the first floor, "for preventative safety." 

Less clear is who is doing the interrogating. Because shuanggui stands independent from China’s judiciary, authorities have great apparent leeway in selecting its practitioners, which the report suggests usually number between six and nine, working three eight-hour shifts. The South Reviews report states they are drawn from different organizations or offices on a temporary basis, and usually do not know one another, which "excludes the interference of an interpersonal element." Their depth of professional experience has varied. In Hebei province in March 2005, a fallen Party Secretary at an investment company was beaten to death while in shuanggui; of those implicated, one was a "fixer" who had no experience in managing legal cases and one was a part-time driver. 

Shaunggui interrogations are so far outside the law that some cadres themselves don’t know exactly how questioning should look or feel, opening the door to enterprising criminals. In March 2009, according to the report, three "unemployed wanderers" in the central megacity of Chongqing posing as CDC officers abducted an unnamed city bureau chief and took him to a hotel room, where he eventually parted with his bank card and password, thinking it part of the process. In May 2010 in a county-level district in the poor inland province of Anhui, another local bureau head went missing for 40 hours as he too endured a fake shuanggui, to which he reportedly submitted. 

Of course, those who fall victim to shuanggui are an unsympathetic constituency, often themselves the practitioners of graft, violence, and extra-legal abuse. Many Chinese citizens feel that whatever abuse victims suffer from other party authorities is just dessert. Commenting on a story covering one official’s death while in shuanggui, one netizen wrote, "If all the executive directors and vice directors from every Chinese court [who almost invariably are members of the party] were shot, it would not be an injustice to many." That said, many are also disturbed by the problems it embodies, so common in other areas of Chinese governance; another commenter wrote, "It’s not transparent, not open, and it sits above the law." In April 2013, images circulating online of a shuanggui victim in the prosperous coastal city of Wenzhou showed him bedridden and covered in bruises. (He eventually died, 38 days after being taken away.) 

Chinese authorities appear aware of the abuses that shuanggui enables, which according to San Francisco-based human rights NGO Dui Hua include "sleep deprivation, simulated drowning, burning the detainee’s skin with cigarettes, and beating." The new administration, which took power in November 2012, has signaled its wishes to bring the system under greater control. Discipline chief Wang Qishan announced new regulations on shuanggui in May 2013 that required that internal party rules comport with the Chinese constitution. And after the Third Plenum, a high-level government meeting in November 2013, the party announced plans to "advance the construction of a China ruled by law." Some experts interpreted that as heralding a future reduction in instances of shuanggui. But because no statistics are available on the number of those conscripted into shuanggui, evaluating the progress or desire of party authorities to curb its influence is nearly impossible. 

Wan’s rapid downfall seems to have stunned some observers. A reporter for Shanghai-based news site Eastday described attending a separate meeting on June 27 dedicated to "propagating the spirit of Wan Qingliang’s speeches." But then, the reporter wrote, "my cellphone buzzed and I took it out," and saw the news of Wan’s investigation.

The rapidly proliferating sense that the inquiry was so "sudden" appears to have rankled some. On June 30, party mouthpiece People’s Daily released an article in its Communist Party news section insisting that the fall of Wan was "neither accidental, nor sudden, but expected." It noted that Wan had been investigated earlier in the year and had become "low-key" afterwards, and pointed to the party’s declarations of its determination to fight corruption following 2013’s Third Plenum. The message seemed to be that neither Wan — nor anyone else caught in party crosshairs for corruption — should ever be surprised. 

Shujie Leng contributed research.

David Wertime is a senior editor at Foreign Policy, where he manages its China section, Tea Leaf Nation. In 2011, he co-founded Tea Leaf Nation as a private company translating and analyzing Chinese social media, which the FP Group acquired in September 2013. David has since created two new miniseries and launched FP’s Chinese-language service. His culture-bridging work has been profiled in books including The Athena Doctrine and Digital Cosmopolitans and magazines including Psychology Today. David frequently discusses China on television and radio and has testified before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. In his spare time, David is an avid marathon runner, a kitchen volunteer at So Others Might Eat, and an expert mentor at 1776, a Washington, D.C.-based incubator and seed fund. Originally from Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, David is a proud returned Peace Corps volunteer. He holds an English degree from Yale University and a law degree from Harvard University.

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