Swept up in China’s anti-corruption campaign, and forsaken by a secretive, suspect legal system
The crackdown on corruption, while addressing a pervasive national problem, faces questions of legitimacy
In China’s maximum security Qincheng prison, which holds the country’s highest-level disgraced officials, Sun Shanwu’s highly regimented days are filled with housekeeping and study sessions on clean politics, which he attends alongside former Communist Party elites with household names.
Sun, 71, the former top political adviser in Henan province in central China who was jailed for corruption in 2010, is referred to by people around him as a workaholic with few hobbies. Now too old to play ping-pong during the daily leisure break, caring for a few plants may be his best moments of daily joy.
“He said he doesn’t need any books,” said Liu Yuping, Sun’s daughter, who last visited her father in April. “There are plenty of people there who read a lot and have books sent in shopping trolleys.”
Sun, who strongly maintains his innocence, desires freedom and a retrial. Given a de facto life sentence for taking bribes, he is among the very few, if not the only, inmate to have received help from the prison to petition for a retrial.
His case sheds light on the normally secretive world of corruption prosecutions at the highest reaches of the country’s administration, prosecutions that are part of a massive campaign meant to legitimise the party’s rule. It also exposes the deep flaws in the justice system, which have been widely criticised from the outside but rarely so clearly acknowledged from within.
Officials from the country’s top prosecutors office urged Sun to hire a lawyer in 2014, after submitting documents in which he contested all of the charges and applied for retrial, Sun said in letters seen by the South China Morning Post.
Sun and his family said the rare gesture could signal that the top leadership had taken notice of the obvious flaws in his conviction.
The application for a retrial was accepted a month later, after the court had turned down Liu’s two previous applications.
“I believe it has raised eyebrows among the leadership, or the offices wouldn’t have moved so promptly,” Liu said.
Sun was among 12 officials above deputy ministerial level found guilty of corruption eight years ago. That number climbed to 40 convictions last year, when the trials of a vast number of disgraced officials in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s far-reaching anti-corruption campaign ended.
Xi’s anti-corruption drive has caught so many officials that Beijing’s elite prison is running out of cells
The campaign, which has swept up more than 1.5 million officials across the country, was seen as highly effective in boosting the party’s legitimacy within China as it cracked down on the pervasive culture of corruption. Yet the drive has had problems of legitimacy, as a number of investigations were widely seen as tools to punish political opponents and the legal system used to authorise a flawed process.
Despite Beijing’s claim to “rule the country by law”, scholars inside and outside China have long questioned the fairness of the nation’s legal system, as courts generally are given little authority and almost everyone who is charged is found guilty.
Corruption cases are further complicated by secrecy, as suspects must first endure covert investigations while they are detained incommunicado, with no access to lawyers, before they are handed to prosecutors.
Courts in corruption trials barely challenge the legality of evidence presented by prosecutors, which defendants commonly claim are confessions extracted through force. After the conviction, verdicts in a vast majority of cases are kept secret from the public, unlike those of other criminal cases, though only a tiny proportion actually involve state secrets.
“These corruption cases are plainly politically sensitive and involve often influential defendants as well as accusers,” said Jerome Cohen, director of the US-Asia Law Institute at New York University.
Chinese courts were weak and could hardly overcome pressure from anti-corruption offices, he said.
The party’s anti-corruption force, or discipline inspection committees, was in charge of originating most corruption cases involving members of the ruling Communist Party before a March overhaul that merged it with the new supervisory commissions as part of the party-state reorganisation.
The new commissions are considered more powerful, as they cover officials as well as hospital, university and media executives who are not party members.
Both the party’s anti-corruption force and the supervisory commissions outrank the prosecutors office and courts on the same level.
“It is much harder to vindicate rights in corruption cases than ordinary criminal cases, even if the case really involves only corruption rather than the political struggle, local or national,” Cohen said.
In a decades-long phenomena that partly underlines the officials’ distrust in the system, it is not unusual for people caught up in corruption investigations to attempt suicide.
The story of Sun Shanwu, which his lawyers and family described as a sham trial full of flaws, would sound familiar to many other “tigers and flies”, the term Beijing uses to refer to corrupt officials at all levels.
“They searched my house with all sorts of detectors and looked for holes,” Liu Yuping, Sun’s daughter, said of the raids in 2007, after Sun was taken by the party’s anti-corruption force.
“They dug the floor and knocked open the walls. They found nothing.”
While the most popular anti-corruption stories in official media usually end with stacks of untouched currency or artwork, the inspectors had to rely on something else on Sun’s case.
Sun’s conviction in 2010 was built mainly on written testimonials, according to the verdict. Most of them were from people in detention, three of whom have recanted in various ways.
One of them, Gao Yuanchi, a colleague of Sun and a former official in Sun’s home province of Henan, said during his own trial that he admitted having bribed Sun only after being forced to do so, according to the verdict.
Gao, a former assistant to the mayor of Luoyang, where Sun was the city’s party chief, was found guilty of taking bribes before the court nullified the charges, citing lack of evidence and suspicion of a forced confession. Yet only four days later he testified in the trial of Sun, who was given a suspended death sentence.
In a written statement, Sun said that he confessed to taking bribes only after he and his family were threatened, and that he expected his relatives to be spared.
“Investigations show I do not have the money, not in my house, not transferred to other accounts, not hidden anywhere,” he said in his final statement at the trial.
“Then I was accused of a malicious and uncooperative attitude for not telling them whereabouts of the money. I don’t know whether to cry or laugh about that.”
Sun’s hopes that family members would not be targeted after his confession were not realised.
Five relatives – his wife, daughter, son, son-in-law and niece – were jailed on corruption charges in similar cases, although some witnesses retracted their testimony after the trials.
“I was tortured and deprived of sleep, so I had to say whatever they wanted me to say,” a businessman found guilty of bribing Sun’s wife told the Post. He asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation.
“I’d love to testify again if there’s a retrial for her,” he said of Sun’s wife, who was given a 3½-year sentence.
The reason for Sun’s fall remains unclear. But Sun’s family and lawyers believe he had upset a retired member of the Politburo Standing Committee by turning down a 2004 bid for a state-owned mine that was offered by the former leader’s relative.
Sun’s case is not unusual. The same patterns can be seen in a collection of 27 corruption convictions, all of which the country’s supreme prosecutors office ordered lower-level branches to review in 2016. The office’s mouthpiece newspaper said all could be below judicial standard.
Eleven provincial prosecutors offices were told to review the cases and were given deadlines, the report said.
Two years after the directive, there has been one retrial, with a six-month reduction of the sentence, and most of the cases have yet to be touched by prosecutors or courts. Most of the cases were handed to prosecutors after 2013.
Legal scholars and lawyers have long decried that trials in China’s judicial system, with its long-time conviction rate of over 99.9 per cent, have been overshadowed by appraisals of judges, police chiefs and prosecutors, making vindication of the accused notoriously difficult.
The challenge is greater in corruption cases, which are staged to highlight the government’s achievements in clean politics and pushed by the party’s anti-corruption watchdog, who outranks local prosecutors offices and courts.
In most of the 27 cases, convicted officials and their lawyers told of cases built on forced confessions, many coerced by threatening the safety of family members, according to verdicts and legal petitions seen by the Post.
Relatives provided evidence that the accused had been briefly moved from detention centres to locations with no video surveillance where, they said, torture took place.
Almost all of the legal petitions described torture to extract confessions, sleep deprivation, and incoherence or contradictions in evidence, with some attaching a diagnosis of physical disabilities sustained during detention.
“Ordering a mandate itself underlines that the authorities have looked through the cases and found them very questionable,” said Zhang Yansheng, a Beijing-based criminal lawyer who first flagged the cases to the top prosecutor’s office. “Similar convictions are still taking place in China, and the old ones have remained unsolved.”
Chen Lianggang, the former provincial land chief of Anhui province in central China and the most senior former official among the 27 convicted, saw his wife diagnosed with a mental illness after he was taken into custody in 2013.
She had provided written testimony against her husband while she was under detention herself, and had helped the authorities in Chen’s 2014 conviction for taking bribes totalling 6 million yuan (US$897,000).
Two days after being released from detention, she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, a spinal dislocation and a kidney disorder, and the PTSD was later confirmed by a mental health institute, according to records seen by the Post.
The diagnosis had raised doubts about the validity of her written testimony.
During the trial, which his family was prohibited from attending, Chen contested all the charges. He said he was not allowed to choose his own lawyers, so he asked those appointed to him to remain silent in the courtroom, which according to a transcript they did.
Chen appealed immediately, but a higher court upheld the ruling a year later.
In a letter to provincial prosecutors in 2015, Chen wrote extensively about the pressure he felt before agreeing to confess to taking bribes.
“They locked me in a room next to my wife’s,” he wrote. “In a period of five months, I could always hear desperate screams from my wife, talks about her hunger strike, fainting, calls for a doctor could be heard from guards’ walkie-talkies. I felt tremendous mental pressure and pain from those voices.”
Chen’s request for access to parts of a video recording of his interrogation, during which he said he was threatened and made up his written confession, was turned down, according to the ruling on his appeal.
The court said the video, taped by the party’s discipline inspection committee, was not among the evidence it was obliged to review.
According to Chinese law, the court is not required to review the legality of the process under the party’s anti-corruption watchdog, and in corruption cases, the courts only deal with material confirmed by prosecutors – who, in turn, always confirm what is given to them by the anti-corruption force.
“Chinese law enforcement is always related to politics; it shouldn’t be that way,” said Zhang, the Beijing-based lawyer. “It could be upsetting to a leader, a local faction, or simply be used to bring down another official. It could be the local governments have quota for anti-corruption cases. Or it could be a pure mistake.”
Chen’s case seems to fit such a description. A rising star known for his legal expertise, Chen was brought down amid a sweeping anti-corruption campaign in his home province in 2013, triggered by the fall of Ni Fake, then the vice-governor.
The overhaul in March of the anti-corruption forces, which merged the party’s anti-corruption unit with new supervisory commissions, has given optimists reason for hope.
Senior officials have said the changes will better protect the rights of suspects, as the new supervisory bodies will finally answer to the law, which sets clearer standards for the investigations.
But critics say that even under the new system, suspects are still detained incommunicado with no access to lawyers, and courts will continue to face immense pressure from a higher office during trials.
“The new supervisory system does not offer significant protections against the arbitrary and lengthy incommunicado detention and torture that have marked the criminal process even now, almost 70 years after the founding [of the people’s republic],” said Cohen, the law professor at the New York University.
“China should face the need for genuine reforms in the administration of justice from the moment of detention through the appeal procedure.”
Sun Shanwu has heard nothing about a possible retrial since 2014. In writings from prison, he dwells on the decades of life-and-death factional clashes in communist China that culminated in the Cultural Revolution, 10 years of political and social upheaval set off by Mao Zedong in 1966.
He writes about how the fathers of China’s present leaders suffered from political persecution, but eventually won their lives back after a decade of darkness.
“All Dad can do is to wait, wait patiently for an official conclusion of the review,” Sun wrote to his daughter in May.
“I of course understand the situation is known to many, and that’s why I’m confident.”