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.

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 been 'shuanggui'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.

AFP/Getty Images

Tea Leaf Nation

'There Are No Rules in China'

When dissident author Murong Xuecun returns home, he says he will tell Beijing authorities they can come and get him.

These are dicey times for Murong Xuecun, although it might not be apparent from his recent movements. He just spent three months in Sydney, Australia, as a visiting scholar at the University of Sydney; went to Saint Malo on the northern coast of France for a literary festival; and spent time in Italy with his European agent before jetting off to Hong Kong to visit his girlfriend, who teaches at a university there. The 40-year-old, Beijing-based novelist (whose real name is Hao Qun) is among the biggest stars in a group of young Chinese literati who jumpstarted their careers by publishing fiction online. In recent years, he's also gained notoriety for his fearless blogging and opinion pieces. Why worry about this outspoken, best-selling, baby-faced Chinese novelist? 

Because on May 23 in a column for the New York Times, published in English and Chinese, Murong stated that when he got back to China, he was going to turn himself over to the authorities. His "crime": involvement in a commemoration of the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement. That May 3 forum in a Beijing apartment, which Murong missed because he was out of the country, resulted in the detention of several prominent intellectuals, including the well-known rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, who remains in custody. Murong says he was there in spirit. He was invited and contributed an essay about heroism and Tiananmen that was read at the gathering. "Hard as it may seem to believe -- I have a law degree, and I myself can hardly believe it," Murong wrote in his column, "reciting such an essay at a private gathering can violate China's laws." He added: "I am going to turn myself in." 

Murong was to fly back to Beijing July 2. Whether he ends up in jail, the subject of Pen International petitions and Human Rights Watch campaigns, or whether he is deemed harmless by Chinese authorities, free to write his next book unmolested, remains to be seen. 

It's a troubling situation for those close to him. Benython Oldfield, Murong's literary agent in Australia, told Foreign Policy via email he is "very concerned" about Murong, who has told Oldfield that he is willing to go to jail for his writing. "There is no edict from high as to what is 100 percent acceptable," said Oldfield. "If you are a writer in China you're not quite sure where that line starts and ends. It's amorphous and can move."

Murong seems unfazed. "We're very worried about him and I've urged him to seriously consider this but he's stated publicly that he will do it, so there's no persuading him otherwise," said Teng Biao, prominent Chinese human rights lawyer and a visiting scholar at the Centre for Rights and Justice of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Murong's being out of the country while so many of his friends were detained "weighed on his conscience," Teng added. 

Whatever the outcome, Murong is no longer just a novelist. He has embraced dissident-hood and, as such, has a new set of occupational hazards to contend with. He runs the risk of disappearing into police custody for months at a time, like human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, or being denied his passport, like the outspoken artist Ai Weiwei, or kept under house arrest, like Beijing activist Hu Jia, or jailed like legal scholar Xu Zhiyong and Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo.

"If Murong isn't detained, there could still be other problems. For example house arrest, or confiscating his passport. This is all possible," said Teng.  

Murong told FP via Skype from Hong Kong that he won't go in person to the police station. After he returns home to Beijing, he plans to post a note online telling authorities that he is back and that they can come get him if they want him. He said those close to him have warned him repeatedly not to return to China, urging him instead to apply for a fellowship and to stay overseas. But he refuses to do that.

Murong said that he is "worried, but not that worried." Apart from Pu, who he thinks is being targeted for his legal activism in addition to the Tiananmen forum, Murong notes that the other attendees of the May 3 gathering have all been released. 

"Of course I realize this assessment is relatively foolish," Murong added. "Many of my friends also thought they wouldn't get detained and then suddenly, one day, they were detained." That's because "there are no rules in China; it's a lottery. But I am a novelist. My mother tongue is Chinese. I ought to be in China."  

Murong Xuecun is Hao Qun's pen name, but he now also uses it socially. He came up with it when he first started posting stories online in 2001; Murong is a standard (if not common) surname, and Xuecun means snowy village, a phrase the writer says he picked at random. The name stuck. Murong was born in 1974 to a farming family in northern China's Jilin province. His father died when he was a child and his mother, who had a third-grade education, supported him and his younger brother the best she could with farming.

Murong remembers the family grew wheat, corn, sweet potato, peanuts, and watermelon. He loved to read, performed well in school, and excelled at taking tests. These attributes helped land him a spot in the elite China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing, where he studied law. He started to write fiction in 2001, and in 2002 began posting online installments of what was to become his first novel Leave Me Alone: A Novel of Chengdu. The darkly comic tale, full of sex and greed, was a huge hit -- the printed version sold more than 1 million copies. Since Leave Me Alone, Murong has written three other novels and a piece of longform investigative journalism that was published as a book. He has a new book in the works titled Thief, about a newspaper editor.

Though a best-selling author, he still considers himself an outsider. Unlike Mo Yan, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist, and many other prominent Chinese authors, Murong is not a member of the official Chinese Writer's Association. He can pinpoint his shift from author to dissident: "Before 2011, I was a Chinese novelist. I sold many books and had a very comfortable life and I knew there were things that could get me into trouble so I knew that I might have to keep my mouth shut." But in 2011, "two things happened that enraged me and that's when I started to stand up and speak out." 

The first trigger was a maddening tangle with an editor while Murong prepared to publish a book of investigative journalism about a pyramid scheme. The apparently arbitrary edits to the book, The Missing Ingredient, included deletion of the word nongmin, meaning peasant. The second trigger was the detention of his good friend, the blogger and activist Ran Yunfei, on suspicion of inciting subversion.

Though he's been speaking out for several years now, Murong is still new to the dissident life. He doesn't have a lawyer but he has someone in mind, just in case.

What he's clear about are his opinions and his determination to air them. And he now has a powerful platform for his views in the New York Times. Sewell Chan, deputy editor of the op-ed section of the Times, told FP in an email that the paper decided to invite Murong to be a contributing opinion writer in the fall of 2013 "because of the literary acclaim his fiction has received, as well as the popularity of his essays, his blogging, and his other nonfiction writing in China." Though the original Chinese versions of Murong's columns are available on the paper's Chinese language website, it is blocked in China.

Murong's monthly columns are concise and unflinchingly critical of the Chinese government. In one piece, he compares the Communist Party to a cult. In another, he criticizes President Xi Jinping's anti-corruption drive as a political purge masquerading as a crackdown. The pieces are brave but also distressing for those invested in Murong's safety. He is a mosquito on the rump of an elephant, the Chinese Communist Party. If he manages to make himself felt, he will be swatted.

Teng compares Murong's evolution from writer to dissident to a similar transition by Yu Jie, another outspoken writer who suffered house arrest and torture before fleeing to the United States in January 2012. Daringly independent writers inevitably get caught in China's suppression machine, Teng said. "Authors like Murong Xuecun or Yu Jie may start out with the ability to publish domestically and have the freedom to move around, but eventually it gets to a certain point and the authorities will start to give them trouble." The Times column in which Murong pledged to turn himself in was titled "I, Too, Will Stand Up for Tiananmen." When the trouble comes, who will stand up for Murong? 

Image: Belinda Mason