Almost from the time he became Communist Party chief just over a year ago, President Xi Jinping took a stand against official corruption and emphasised the importance of the rule of law in rooting it out. If he wants this stand to define his rule he must back up his words with action that enshrines accountability and transparency. This is conspicuously missing from the party's internal anti-graft mechanism, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection - the main weapon against the abuse of power. The CCDI may strike fear into the hearts of officials but, in exercising its powers of secret interrogation, it is acting illegally and is unaccountable. A start must be made on reforming the system.
It is good therefore that the party is at least considering reining in the CCDI. Just as all the attention was on the third plenum of top leaders and their plans for economic reforms, the nation's top anti-graft investigator quietly invited several anti-corruption experts to advise on reform of the secret interrogation system, known as shuanggui. Jiang Mingan, a law academic from Peking University who was invited to the meeting, said it reflected Xi's remarks on the importance of the rule of law in fighting corruption.
Under shuanggui, an abbreviation from party regulations, party members - which most officials are - are required to explain alleged disciplinary violations at a specific time and venue. However, suspects can be subjected to 24-hour surveillance and harsh interrogation while being denied access to lawyers or family members. This can last for months or even years until they crack or investigators get enough evidence, after which they may be turned over to prosecutors for trials.
Jiang said officials have formed a consensus to strengthen the role of public prosecutors as opposed to party investigators in investigating corruption. Another Peking University law academic, Li Chengyan, said cases would be handed over to prosecutors sooner, although the internal interrogation system would continue to have a role. Jiang believes it is inevitable in the long term that the party will wind down and even abolish it.
That said, the CCDI has played its part in deterring corruption. It is sobering to contemplate how bad the problem might be otherwise. But a secret, unaccountable, extrajudicial system so open to abuse becomes part of the problem in the end. Anti-graft activities must be carried out legally and sooner rather than later, for the sake of the legitimacy of party rule.