Voices in the Chinese public, from common netizens to prominent legal experts, are increasingly strengthening calls for greater accountability in the country's criminal justice system, like with the recent case of Zhao Zuohai. Criticisms of how China's criminal justice and law enforcement organs function—and official government responses—have sparked debate about whether popular opinion is driving the development of rule of law in China or simply contributing to digital-age mob justice.
The cases that may have attracted the most public ire are those in which a miscarriage of justice is compounded by an inept administrative cover-up. In an early 2009 case of "death by 'blind man’s bluff,'" for example, citizens ridiculed local officials who claimed that a detainee in Yunnan Province died after bumping his head while playing a game with his cellmates. The naming convention that has emerged around these cases—such as, among several others, "death by nightmare," "death by picking at acne," and "death by drinking water"—is a glib poke at the official line that time and again accompanies these tragedies, a line that clumsily obfuscates the most commonly suspected cause of the deaths, which is abuse at the hands of detention center personnel.
On June 24, the Zhejiang Daily published a spread (translated below) that compiled accounts from other sources of "unnatural deaths" in Chinese detention centers. Certainly not exhaustive, this list is accompanied by a graphic (below, click to enlarge) that depicts the victims as anonymous figures labeled with their official cause of death. It is then followed by a piece of reportage that focuses on the Detention Center Management Bureau of the Ministry of Public Security and efforts to curb abuses in detention.
From “Blind Man’s Bluff” to “Face Washing”
Urgently Awaiting the End of Unnatural Deaths in Detention Centers
Zhejiang Daily, June 24, 2010
Detention centers are said to be a touchstone for testing the rule-of-law progress of a nation or region.
A series of unnatural deaths in recent years have thrust these facilities, once shrouded in mystery, before the public view and placed them at the center of a storm.
Countless varieties of unnatural death
Many netizens have commented extensively on the series of unnatural deaths in detention centers over recent years and given each one an accordingly bizarre name.
- Death by "blind man’s bluff": In February 2009, when Li Qiaoming died in the detention center of the Puning County (Yunnan) Public Security Bureau, police said that he had suffered serious injuries from bumping into a wall while playing "blind man’s bluff" with fellow inmates. Subsequent investigation determined that he had been beaten to death by prison bullies.
- Death by showering: In March 2009, a 57-year-old Hainan man died in the Danzhou (Hainan) Number One Detention Center. Police said that the incident arose when a suspect told him to undress and shower; he refused and was beaten to death.
- Death by falling out of bed: In March 2009, 20-year-old Fujian youth Wen Longhui died suddenly in the Fuzhou (Fujian) Number Two Detention Center. The detention center said he had fallen out of bed as a result of sudden death or illness.
- Death by nightmare: In March 2009, the Jiujiang (Jiangxi) Detention Center said that a Hunan man named Li Wenyan died suddenly in the middle of the night after having a nightmare.
- Death from sleeping in an improper position: In April 2009, a Fuzhou student surnamed Chen died suddenly in the Fuqing City (Fujian) Public Order Lockup. Police said his sleep position was improper and that he was unresponsive to efforts to awaken him and died after efforts to revive him were unsuccessful.
- Death by going crazy: In June 2009, when a youth named Lin Lifeng died in the Wuchuan City (Guangdong) Number Two Detention Center, police said he had “died after going crazy.” The procuratorate ultimately ruled the death as “sudden cardiac arrest.”
- Death by picking at acne: In November 2009, Yu Weiping from Gaocun Town, Wendeng City, Shandong, died while being held in a detention center. Upon inspecting the body, his family found small holes on his chest, which the detention center claimed were caused by his picking at acne. A subsequent autopsy revealed that the death was caused by cardiac rupture following repeated stabbing with a sharp, needle-like object.
- Death from agitation: In December 2009, a Shaanxi woman named Wang Huixia was taken away by police and died an unnatural death after 20 hours of questioning. Police said her death was triggered by agitation and anxiety.
- Death by drinking water: In February 2010, a young Henan man died in a detention center in Lushan County. Police said that he suddenly took ill and died from drinking boiled water during an interrogation.
- Death by tripping: In February 2010, criminal suspect Chen Xujin died in the detention center in Xiushui County, Jiujiang, Jiangxi. Police said that he tripped in the toilet and died suddenly. A doctor claimed he was forced to make a false [report].
- Death by going to the toilet: In March 2010, a major criminal offender died under mysterious circumstances in Tuoketuo County, Hohhot, Inner Mongolia. Police explained that [the death] happened when he fell going to the toilet in the middle of the night.
- Death by insufficient evidence: In 2010, after two trials no verdict was returned in the case of Pu Zemin from Mianyang, Sichuan, because of insufficient evidence. Pu Zemin ultimately died under mysterious circumstances in the detention center.
- Death by face-washing: In April 2010, a man died a bizarre death in the administrative lockup of Gong’an County, Jingzhou, Hubei. Police said that the man had drowned in the face-washing basin.
When will bizarre deaths end?
”I listen and think it’s ridiculous, because it’s simply impossible,” said a former director general of the Detention Center Management Bureau of the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) about the series of unnatural deaths such as “death by nightmare,” “death by drinking water,” “death by going to the toilet,” “death by face-washing.” “Most are [the result of] beatings.” First is coerced confessions during the investigation stage. Police hit someone and initially it doesn’t seem like a big problem, but then [the suspect] is locked up and doesn’t [receive] immediate treatment and [the injury] spreads and leads to death. Second is when the detention center tries to solve a case: the eagerness for quick results and unrealistic expectations [leads to] disregard for roughing someone up. Third is handing over management authority to inmate enforcers, who wield a great deal of power. If you give this authority to someone ruthless like a murderer, it’s very possible he’ll beat someone to death.
In April of this year, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate held a tele-linked meeting at which it was revealed that this year 15 cases of unnatural detainee deaths in 12 provinces had been reported to the Procuratorial Department for Prisons and Detention Centers. Three were reported as suicides, seven had been beaten to death, two died as a result of accidents, and three deaths were still under investigation. An official from the department said that unnatural deaths in detention centers were the result of both lax management by the public security organs and weak oversight by procuratorates.
”The complexity of the problems in detention centers are owing to many years of long-standing abuses,” says Chen Weidong, professor at the Renmin University School of Law. “Looking back at the past 60 years of the development of detention centers [in China], one can see that there have essentially been no changes in detention center management or mechanisms to protect rights.” He said that this whole time, detention centers overemphasized the guarding and reform of detainees, as well as even uncovering crime and assisting in the punishment of crime. However, the function of protecting human rights has never been demonstrated, making it difficult to adapt to the demands of modern rule of law.
Reform is only possible solution
MPS Detention Center Management Bureau Director Zhao Chunguang says: “Public security detention work has to open up more to the public in order to eliminate the feeling of mystery. We should let the public know and see that it’s not the least bit hidden from view.” If the public does not trust public security detention work, it is to some extent the fault of public security detention being closed, secret, and insufficiently transparent.
Since 2009, the MPS Detention Center Management Bureau has opened 150 detention centers to the public in two batches. Public security detention facilities all over have been opening up to the public in all sorts of ways, including inviting the media to conduct interviews; arranging inspections by Party and government leaders, delegates to the people’s congresses and political consultative conferences, and specially invited monitors; and hosting detainees’ family members and lawyers and holding roundtable meetings.
The death of Sun Zhigang brought about reform of the custody and repatriation system. Now, people all over are watching to see whether the string of unnatural deaths occurring throughout the country will bring about new changes for detention centers.
In the view of some scholars, the real way to cure [the problems facing] detention centers is to separate [criminal] investigation from [suspect] custody, with public security departments exercising the authority to investigate and authority over detention being transferred to judicial administration departments.
Professor Gu Yongzhong of China University of Politics and Law points out that even if public security organs managed [detention facilities] better, suspicions would always remain. Tsinghua University Law School Professor Zhang Jianwei believes that, compared to the current system that relies on internal monitoring, [a system of] external [monitoring] would be more significant and valuable.
In April of this year, Specially Appointed MPS Monitor, National People’s Congress Deputy, and Furun Holdings Group Board Chairman Zhao Linzhong participated in an detention center inspection program organized by the MPS. He believes that the fundamental cure must involve revision of detention center regulations as soon as possible. “Those regulations haven’t been changed in 20 years, and some of the provisions aren’t in accord with developments or the progress of the nation’s legal institutions.”
Presently, the nation’s public security organs are undergoing a focused effort to repair the damage and bring an end once and for all to incidents involving the unnatural deaths of criminal suspects during the law enforcement process. [New] regulations clearly state that, in cases in which the unnatural death of suspects is due to an official’s failure to pay attention or carry out [the necessary] work, those officials with direct or shared responsibility will without exception be suspended from duty and, pending thorough investigation of the facts, handled according to disciplinary [rules] and the law.