The Chinese government uses a secretive detention system to coerce confessions from corruption suspects, a global human rights organization says.

The system, known as shuanggui (雙規), is run by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and has been used by President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) anti-corruption campaign despite having no basis under Chinese law.

“President Xi has built his anti-corruption campaign on an abusive and illegal detention system,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch (HRW). “Torturing suspects to confess won’t bring an end to corruption, but will end any confidence in China’s judicial system.”

In January 2013, Xi, just months after taking office, warned officials the forthcoming fight against endemic corruption in China would be “long-term, complicated and arduous.”

"We must have the resolve to fight every corrupt phenomenon, punish every corrupt official and constantly eliminate the soil which breeds corruption, so as to earn people's trust with actual results," he said.

Accounts of abuse

The shuanggui system applies to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) 88 million members under the party’s internal disciplinary process, administered by the Central Commission on Discipline Inspection (CCDI). In addition to government officials, those detained also include bankers, university officials, and entertainment industry figures, HRW says.

The New York-based organization has today released a 102-page report alleging abuses against shuanggui detainees, including prolonged sleep deprivation, being forced into stress positions for extended periods of time, deprivation of water and food, and severe beatings. The report is based on 21 interviews with four former detainees, as well as family members of detainees; 35 detailed accounts from detainees culled from over 200 Chinese media reports; and an analysis of 38 court verdicts from across the country, the organization says.

“If you sit you have to sit for 12 hours straight, if you stand then you have to stand for 12 hours as well. My legs became swollen, and my buttocks were raw and started oozing pus,” one former shuanggui detainee told Human Rights Watch.

A Beijing-based lawyer quoted in the report notes a case in which the client, another detainee, said for the first eight days of detainment he could only sleep for an hour [each day].

“For the remaining 23 hours he was forced to stand, and he had to hold a book on his head without it falling off,” the lawyer said. “He stood for eight days and couldn’t stand it, and confessed to everything and to whatever they said. After he said it, he was allowed two hours of sleep every day. At that point his feet were swollen like an elephant’s, and he could no longer urinate.”

HRW says its report is the first time accounts from shuanggui detainees have been made public. According to the report, after “confessing” to corruption detainees are typically brought into the criminal justice system, convicted, and sentenced to often lengthy prison terms.

“In shuanggui corruption cases, the courts function as rubber stamps, lending credibility to an utterly illegal Communist Party process,” Richardson said. “Shuanggui not only further undermines China’s judiciary – it makes a mockery of it.”

Shrouded in secrecy

Xi’s anti-corruption campaign has reached deeply into Chinese society and also abroad.

According to the CCP’s anti-graft agency, about 200,000 party and government staff have been punished for violating the CCP’s “frugality” rules they were introduced in 2012. Chinese state media quotes the CCDI as saying the officials were involved in more than 146,400 cases, about one-quarter of which involved the use of public vehicles and dining out on public funds.

Moreover, since 2014, under President Xi’s “Operation Fox Hunt,” some 2,020 so-called “economic fugitives,” including 342 former officials, have been returned to China from more than 70 countries.

While the Chinese government is public about some parts of its far-reaching and ongoing efforts to crackdown on corruption, HRW says the shuanggui is shrouded in secrecy.

“The CCDI headquarters in Beijing is not marked except for its street address,” the report says. “Although the CCDI has instructed lower-level offices to provide it with information about all shuanggui cases in the country since 2001, key information — such as how many people are subjected to shuanggui each year — is not publicly available. Nor is the CCDI’s 2012 directive that supposedly outlines better protections for shuanggui detainees.”

HRW acknowledges “there is no doubt” China faces serious problems with corruption. It points to the fact that Transparency International ranked it 83rd out of 168 countries in its Corruption Perceptions Index 2015.

But it says the anti-corruption campaign is unlikely to succeed given China’s absence of an independent judiciary, free media, rule of law, and a criminal justice system that can effectively and fairly investigate and prosecute corruption.

“Abolishing shuanggui is a necessary first step.”

Some commentators have interpreted the anti-graft campaign as Xi’s way of purging other powerful people in China’s leadership. Xi is also party secretary general.