The Communist Party is considering reducing the use of its shuanggui interrogation system in favour of strengthening the role of prosecutors in its anti-corruption campaign.
Shuanggui, literally "double designations", is a secretive disciplinary measure that the party uses to investigate members suspected of corruption. The legal basis of the measure dates back to an administrative regulation, issued by the central government in 1990, which authorised administrative supervisory departments at various levels to investigate civil servants suspected of violating state law or administrative discipline.
Most noticeably, this regulation granted the supervisory departments the power to order those concerned to appear at a "designated time and place" to account for the matters under supervision.
In 1994, the party's disciplinary organs obtained the same power through a party document named " Regulation on the Work of Investigating Cases". The so-called designated time and place for summoning suspects have been referred to as lianggui, literally "two designations".
In 1997, a parliamentary law on administrative supervision was adopted to replace the regulation. While the coercive measure was retained, the wording was changed to "specified time and place". The measure taken according to the new law has been called liangzhi, literally "two specifications" and was clearly an attempt to distinguish it from lianggui.
At least in theory, lianggui is a measure against party members, whereas liangzhi is imposed on civil servants outside the party. In practice, however, all decisions are made by party leaders and the distinction has little significance.
When officials are suspected of corruption, they are typically first subjected to shuanggui in accordance with party rules or administrative regulations rather than to formal detention according to Criminal Procedure Law. If there is sufficient evidence for a criminal charge, the suspect will be handed over to prosecutors and judges. Few who have been handled via shuanggui emerge unscathed.
This is not a summons, as its name seems to indicate, but a euphemistic term for solitary confinement that may last for months or even years. The suspects are usually seized, held incommunicado in hotel rooms or other facilities, and denied some of the basic safeguards to which ordinary criminal suspects are entitled. If the detainees do not confess, torture and other inhuman treatment are not unusual.
Obviously, the extralegal procedure of shuanggui is likely to be harsher than any formal criminal procedure and directly contravenes the Chinese constitution, which requires that the detention of an individual be approved by a prosecuting authority or decided by a court.
It is also incompatible with China's Legislation Law and the Law on Administrative Penalty, both of which provide that any restriction of personal freedom must be authorised by a parliamentary law. Needless to say, shuanggui in no way complies with international human rights conventions.
Because of the veil of secrecy that covers shuanggui, the measure is wide open to abuse. High-ranking officials like Bo Xilai , the former Chongqing party chief, and Liu Zhijun , the former railways minister, are usually treated well when they are in shuanggui detention.
But lower-level officials are not so lucky, because they have to endure harsh treatment which often amounts to the crime of "extorting confession through torture" or "intentional assault" under Chinese criminal law.
This year alone, there have been media reports on three shuanggui-related deaths. The first victim was Yu Qiyi , a chief engineer with a state-owned company in Wenzhou , who died on April 9. The second was Jia Jiuxiang , a senior official at the intermediate court of Sanmenxia city in Henan , who died on April 23. The third was Qian Guoliang , head of the seismological bureau in Huangmei county in Hubei , who died on June 19.
In Yu's case, six party investigators were arrested and convicted of intentional assault in connection with his death. The families of Jia and Qian, however, have so far been appealing in vain for a thorough investigation into their alleged torture cases.
It is very rare that party officials in charge of shuanggui are given disciplinary sanctions, let alone criminal punishment for fulfilling their duties.
Because of widespread disgust over corrupt officials, the fact that shuanggui is unlawful arouses little concern outside legal circles. Top party leaders may therefore feel less pressured to reform the system. For the time being, the party seems prepared to restrict rather than scrap the use of shuanggui.
Although fighting corruption is extremely important for the Communist Party to preserve its reputation and legitimacy, it is even more important for it to adhere to the rule of law in this fight.
No matter how much corrupt officials are despised, they still deserve to have their legitimate rights protected in the same way that everyone else does. It is therefore high time to abolish this extralegal measure.
Zhou Zunyou, head of the China section at Germany's Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Criminal Law, is working on a research project on counterterrorism legislation