Monday, December 22, 2014

Why Feng Zhiming’s Arrest Is Not Enough to Prevent Injustice

Feng Zhiming, lead investigator in the 1996 case against Huugjilt, is under investigation for dereliction of duty. Image credit: CCTV

The Chinese Communist Party’s Fourth Plenum that took place in October was notable for its emphasis on promoting “rule of law” and laying out guiding principles for further reform of the country’s legal system. Events in recent weeks have pushed one subject discussed at the Fourth Plenum into the spotlight: namely, the desire to implement more stringent systems of personal accountability for law-enforcement personnel to help stem the problem of wrongful convictions and other miscarriages of justice.

The face that has lately come to exemplify China’s resolve to address the problem is that of Huugjilt, who as an 18-year-old young man from Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, was executed back in 1996 for a rape and homicide he did not commit. Huugjilt became a suspect after he and a friend told police of their discovery of a woman’s dead body in a public toilet. He was brought to justice swiftly on the basis of an alleged confession, with just over two months elapsing between his arrest and eventual execution by gunshot.

In 2005, however, a serial murderer named Zhao Zhiheng confessed to a string of murders, including the one for which Huugjilt had been convicted. When Zhao’s case went to trial the following year, however, he was not charged for that particular murder and the conviction against Huugjilt was left to stand. Fearing that local authorities were trying to cover up evidence of a miscarriage of justice, a Xinhua News Service reporter named Tang Ji wrote up the first of several internal reports on the case intended for the eyes of central authorities.

The following year, the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region Politico-Legal Committee conducted a review of the case that determined Huugjilt had been wrongly convicted. Over the years that followed, central and regional authorities issued instructions for the case to be reopened, but court officials repeatedly demurred and no one was held responsible for this tragic miscarriage of justice. In fact, as a recent graphic that circulated online makes clear, the main people responsible for seeing Huugjilt’s case through the system went on to receive promotions and commendations.

That nine-year process of legal limbo came to an end abruptly last month, as the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region High People’s Court held a new trial in the case that posthumously exonerated Huugjilt of all charges on December 15. Even more dramatic was the announcement days later that Feng Zhiming, the police official who had led the original criminal investigation in 1996, had been placed under arrest by the local procuratorate and was being investigated for dereliction of duty, coercing confessions through torture, and taking bribes.

A spokesperson for the Inner Mongolia High People's Court announces investigation of Feng Zhiming at a December press conference. Image credit: CCTV

While many are hailing this as a victory (albeit belated) for justice, several commentators have greeted the news of Feng’s arrest with a more cautious eye. At issue is how far the accountability drive will go in holding all those responsible for miscarriages of justice like this and whether it will be carried out in ways that promote positive systemic change.

In a recent commentary in The Beijing Times, a frequent legal pundit who writes under the name “Binglin” argues the need for openness and transparency in the process of holding officials accountable for wrongful convictions. For one thing, transparency will facilitate both to ensure that the process is as comprehensive and thorough as possible. Keeping the process in the public eye will also strengthen its effectiveness at molding the behavior of others within law-enforcement.

Accountability for acts carried out in individual cases is perhaps the easy part; much more difficult is to assess responsibility for the deeper institutional causes underlying wrongful convictions—such as the role that inter-institutional “coordination” plays in weakening the procedural checks that are supposed to protect suspects and defendants from miscarriages of justice. The worst outcome would be for accountability in the Huugjilt case to be merely a propaganda effort aimed at convincing the public of authorities’ sincerity at tackling the problem of wrongful convictions. Punishing Feng Zhiming for wrongdoing is only the first step. What’s even more essential is to bring an end to the ways that campaign-style “strike hard” policing and stability-first policies have shaped practices within the Chinese criminal justice system for decades.

Openness Will Encourage Birth of “Wrongful Case Responsibility-Tracing Mechanism”

The Beijing Times, 19 December 2014

When neither information nor process is public, the mechanism for tracing past responsibility loses its most important role as a warning to others. Without strict assurance of open information and transparent procedures, it’s hard to ensure there will be no cover-ups.

The recent spate of actions taken to redress wrongful judicial decisions has caused a great deal of public excitement. Particularly after the Inner Mongolia [High People’s Court] re-tried the case against Huugjilt and pronounced him innocent, the public has been paying a great deal of attention to the pursuit of accountability in wrongful convictions. So far, the Inner Mongolia Public Security Department, High People’s Court, and Procuratorate have all publicly announced that they have launched investigations into personnel related to the Huugjilt case. The most recent news is that Hohhot Public Security Bureau Deputy Chief Feng Zhiming, who led the special investigative team in Huugjilt’s case, has now been taken into custody by the procuratorate and is under investigation for suspected criminal offenses committed while on the job.

Along the assembly line on which wrongful convictions are manufactured, those parts of the system that are intended to uphold justice frequently fail to do so. From investigative units that are eager to solve cases, to prosecutors who are supposed to screen and examine cases, and to adjudicating bodies responsible for conviction and sentencing—no matter what the reason for the failure might be, objectively speaking, none can easily evade responsibility when there is a wrongful conviction. After enduring a marathon process of petition, re-examination, and re-trial in the Huugjilt case, the swift launch of the legal accountability process is, to a certain degree, a response to the public’s demands and can mark a good beginning of the implementation of a system to trace accountability in wrongful convictions.

But there are also reasons not to be so optimistic. A special team to re-examine Huugjilt’s case was set up back in 2006, so why did it take nine years for this case to get resolved? Was there obstruction to the re-examination? Was it anything that people should be held accountable for? Was responsibility for the wrongful conviction limited to the police, prosecutors, and courts? It is crucial that any accountability system for wrongful convictions be comprehensive, open, and thorough. However, a recent media accounting of 10 wrongful convictions in recent years revealed that, apart from the Zhao Zuohai case (in which five police officers were convicted of coercing confessions through torture), in most of the other cases the decisions about accountability were not revealed to the public. In the case of the Zhejiang man and his nephew wrongly convicted of rape or the five young men from Xiaoshan wrongly convicted of fatal robberies, there were only “internal investigations into accountability,” “the details of which cannot be released.” It is worth questioning seriously just how heavy the sanctions are in such internal accountability investigations and how much they serve as warnings to others handling cases within the law-enforcement system. After all, it is not all that uncommon to see institutions respond perfunctorily to public opinion oversight through such actions as horizontal re-shuffling or even apparent demotions that are actually promotions.

More importantly, non-public and non-transparent accountability processes in response to wrongful convictions are less likely to become subject to public oversight and cause people to suspect that there may be something fishy going on. When neither information nor process is public, the mechanism for tracing past responsibility loses its most important role as a warning to others in the system, who can’t appreciate the severity of the accountability or use the result of the process to regulate their own specific case-handling behaviors. We must realize that when a system for tracing past accountability in wrongful convictions is limited to internal processes within enforcement agencies, sometimes those who ought to be held accountable are actually leading cadres within those agencies. Without strict assurance of public information and transparent procedures, it’s hard to ensure there will be no cover-ups.

At the end of the day, if you want to prevent the mechanism for tracing past accountability from becoming a sham, there needs to be open and transparent procedural mechanisms and the accountability process itself must be part of what officials are held accountable for. If the response to a wrongful conviction is limited only to payment of state compensation and those “law-enforcers” are never held accountable for causing innocent people to spend time in prison or go to their graves proclaiming their innocence, then this kind of remedy will ultimately fail to bring any improvement to the judicial environment. It will seem to people as if the state is left to foot the bill whenever law-enforcement officials make mistakes, and the gap between power and responsibility will mean that other law-enforcement personnel will learn no lessons from the process.

Accountability is a crucial part of legal justice. The decision of the Fourth Plenum of the 18th Party Congress clearly called for the implementation of a lifetime responsibility and punishment mechanism for individuals who handle cases within the law-enforcement system and a system to trace accountability in cases of wrongful conviction. These systems are intended to help ensure that cases are handled in a way that can stand up to the scrutiny of both law and history. It might be worth starting with the wrongful convictions and other miscarriages of justice that have been uncovered in recent years to launch a process of accountability that demonstrates the same resolve and severity shown in the anti-corruption campaign and lets the mechanism for tracing past accountability come into being.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Riding the Rails: Political Investigations by China’s Railway Police

Guangzhou Railway Police patrolling station, 2011. Image credit:

China’s railway police are tasked with preventing and handling criminal activity and maintaining safety and order in train stations and on trains. They also cooperate with state security to investigate and detain criminal suspects in political cases. Railroads move people, goods, and ideas, and over the past few decades the focus of political investigations among railway police has shifted from counterrevolution to religion to mass incidents. By reviewing official archives, Dui Hua has uncovered scores of political and religious cases handled by railway police, prosecutors, and courts from 1980 to present.


“The railway bureaus must not be overlooked as an important sub-battleground [in the fight] against hostile forces.” — Liaoning Province Railway Police Records

During the 1980s, railway police across the country worked closely with state security forces to “safeguard national security, socialism, and the smooth implementation of the Four Modernizations.” Six major areas of political investigation were: (1) espionage and other counterrevolutionary cases; (2) railroad sabotage; (3) stealing state secrets and espionage at bus and train stations; (4) people potentially manipulated by enemies and suspected of counterrevolution; (5) the enemy’s situation, prevention of counterrevolutionary sabotage, and strengthening investigative services; and (6) fighting the enemy at ports and borders. [*]  

The political cases most commonly documented by railway police were counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement. Official records routinely state that counterrevolutionary propaganda stirs resentment against the people’s dictatorship and tarnishes China’s international image. Whether they criticized the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), local cadres, the abandonment of pre-reform socialism, agricultural taxes, the one-child policy, or simply presented personal grievances, “reactionary” slogans, letters, leaflets, and poems were deemed to have far-reaching, negative consequences. In train stations—high-traffic areas with thousands of idling people, propaganda has a huge potential audience.

Travelers were not the only potential recipients or disseminators of so-called counterrevolutionary rhetoric, and railway police worked to ensure that all railway employees were politically correct and loyal to the CCP. Of particular concern was Taiwanese infiltration of the railways, which were closely linked to economic development. Railway police used surveillance networks to ensure that railway employees were not affected by the “poisonous thoughts of psychological warfare,” i.e., Taiwanese propaganda in the form of radio broadcasts and “reactionary” materials making it across the strait in balloons and floating carriers. In 1983, one of six counterrevolution cases filed by railway police in Shenyang, Liaoning Province, involved a railway electrician who allegedly wrote in his notebook that he hoped Chiang Kai-shek would retake the mainland and kill a few communists. In a separate counterrevolutionary case the same year, a train station employee in Hebei’s Shanhai Pass allegedly spread rumors that “viciously attacked Deng Xiaoping.”

In the northeastern provinces, railway bureaus were more vigilant about secret agents from the Soviet Union than Taiwan. In the two years after China began research to counter Soviet espionage in 1979, Harbin railway police examined 41 suspects. Among them was Ma Wenzhong (马文忠) a Hui man originally from Gansu Province. Harbin Public Security Records state that Ma was paid by Soviet agents to collect political, military, and economic intelligence. He was detained in Mudanjiang Train Station and sentenced to 12 years in prison by the Harbin Railway Transport Intermediate People’s Court in December 1983.

1989 Protests

In 1989, one major responsibility undertaken by railway bureaus was to help contain the nationwide pro-democracy protests that first began in Beijing on April 15. On May 25, the State Council issued an emergency notice to the Ministry of Public Security and Ministry of Railways condemning the negative social impact and economic losses caused by students who “barged into train stations and forcefully took trains to Beijing.” All railway bureaus were urged to take concrete measures to prevent students from traveling to Beijing by train.

Railway police in Kunming, Yunnan Province, “dissuaded” 683 students from traveling north to Beijing and confiscated 558 copies of reactionary propaganda. In Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang Province, railway police tracked down a total 284 key suspects who joined the pro-democracy protests and two “ringleaders who created disturbances in Jilin Province and Nanjing” and confiscated 48 leaflets and eight notebooks with reactionary content. Elsewhere, railway police dispersed protesters laying down on tracks; removed barricades; and searched trains, guesthouses, and hotels along the railroads.

Dui Hua’s Political Prisoner Database (PPDB) has information on three individuals who were tried by railway courts for inciting demonstrators to block trains. In Shanghai, Gao Guihong (高贵鸿) and Wang Xia (王霞) were sentenced to five and four years in prison, respectively, for gathering a crowd to disrupt traffic or a public place. In Hunan, Huang Junjie (黄俊杰) was convicted of hooliganism but exempted from criminal punishment due to his advanced age by the Changsha Railway Transport Court in January 1991. Huang was 69 years old in 1989.


Despite a significant drop in the number of cases of counterrevolutionary sabotage, propaganda, and incitement, the 1990s saw a surge in “anti-socialist and anti-CCP” activities “disguised” as religious outreach. — Harbin Railway Public Security Records

On July 16, 1994, several church members staying at a guesthouse owned by the Harbin railway bureau were found to have gathered 1,000 members of New Testament Church to prepare for the “ascension to heaven.” In November 1995, the State Council labeled New Testament Church a cult. According to official records, the church aimed to “shatter the dysnomy of the Communist Party.”

Between 1995 and 1998, records from Xinjiang railway police reported crackdowns not only on “illegal mosques,” but also on Guanyin Famen; Bloody Holy Spirit; and house church gatherings in Urumqi, Turpan Korla City, and Yu’ergou Village. In 1999, Urumqi railway police intercepted 56 Falun Gong practitioners at train stations and confiscated 1,342 copies of Falun Gong propaganda and 980 copies of audio-video materials.

Cases involving secret political associations are occasionally mentioned in railway police records. In 1992, Yu Jie (于杰), an electrician at Jiamusi Train Station in Heilongjiang Province, was arrested for his involvement in the China Democracy Party. Yu joined people from Beijing and Liaoning Province in designing a new national flag and “conspiring to build an army to overthrow the CCP.” After reading Yu’s private letters, Harbin railway police concluded that Yu and others were in collusion with capitalism and “conspired” to seek help from the West.

In the south, surveillance of “reactionary” individuals and publications connected to Hong Kong continued even after the British returned the territory to China in July 1997. Guangdong railway police investigated Zhang Xuguang (张旭光), a cargo officer at Longchuan Train Station, after he accepted an invitation to meet with members of Tsung Tsin Association, a “pro-rightist” Hakka association based in Hong Kong, in September 1997. Between 1994 and 1999, the Huizhou Railway Public Security Department confiscated 1,637 copies of Hong Kong newspaper Apple Daily and East Week magazine, 89 copies of One Magazine, and more than 50 copies of banned political books.


Railway police often list the suppression of illegal religious activities among their top achievements. In 2010, railway police in Nanchang, Jiangxi Province, tracked down 1,310 members of 48 cults and “a large number of underground religious groups” along the Xiangtang-Putian Railway. In 2012, railway police in Zhengzhou, Henan Province, confiscated more than 26,200 copies of “cult” propaganda. Some of the material discussed qigong and religious sects such as Almighty God, Zhonggong and the Amitabha Society.

Falun Gong is the religious group most frequently discussed in railway bureau records. In 2006 alone, Guangxi’s Liuzhou railway police investigated a total of 114 Falun Gong propaganda and incitement cases and confiscated 2,425 copies of illegal publications.

The PPDB has information on 18 Falun Gong practitioners who were convicted by railway courts and sentenced to up to six years’ imprisonment. At least a third of these individuals were railway bureau employees in Heilongjiang and Guangxi, while others were passengers in possession of Falun Gong publications while at train stations or traveling by train.

Amid a rising number of mass incidents nationwide, railway police constitute part of the stability-maintenance machine meant to curb potential unrest. In the wake of the deadly high-speed rail accident in Wenzhou on July 23, 2011, Nanchang railway police detained Zhang Qijin (张琦金) and Lin Tao (林涛) for disseminating social media posts in an effort to organize a mass vigil outside Xiamen Train Station. The vigil aimed to further demands that authorities investigate the cause of the accident.

Xuzhou Railway Police check "important travelers" in 2011. Image credit:

Internally, railway police add names to the list of “targeted people” who should be kept under close watch and identify railway bureau employees who might “illegally petition” or protest low wages, layoffs, or poor retirement benefits. In 2000, Zhengzhou railway police resolved 63 incidents of collective petitioning involving 1,282 railway bureau staff and their family members. In 2005, the number of these incidents and the people involved jumped more than six-fold to 419 and nearly threefold to 3,513, respectively. Fifty of the cases in 2005 were mass incidents, including those plotted but not carried out, involving “attacks on the railroad and obstruction of railway transit.”

In close collaboration with local governments and security contractors, railway police intercept tens of thousands of petitioners who are not railway employees, with most of them taken into custody during “sensitive” periods such as the two meetings (i.e., the National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in March) and June Fourth. In the four-year period from 2008 to 2011, Zhengzhou railway police prevented more than 3,000 petitioners from traveling to Beijing. Further south in Nanning, Guangxi Province, more than 3,300 petitioners were intercepted on their way to Beijing in the seven years between 2004 and 2010. In both places the highest number of annual interceptions was in 2009, which marked the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. The most recent petitioning statistic Dui Hua uncovered was from 2012, when Xi Jinping replaced Hu Jintao as general secretary during the 18th National People’s Congress. That year a disaggregated total of 7,799 individuals attempting to petition either provincial or central governments were intercepted or inspected by Zhengzhou railway police.

Interception of Petitioners En Route to Beijing by Local Railway Police
Zhengzhou, Henan Nanning, Guangxi
Year No. of petitions No. of petitioners No. of petitions No. of petitioners
2004 - - 38 632
2005 - - 43 414
2006 - - 54 296
2008 46 >380 105 507
2009 137 1,431 103 695
2010 55 579 60 379
2011 69 706 - -
Sources: Dui Hua, Zhengzhou Railway Bureau Yearbook, Nanning Railway Bureau Yearbook

Railway police require ethnic minorities to bear the brunt of more stringent security protocols due to ethnic unrest. In the wake of the Lhasa Riots in 2008, several locales in eastern coastal province of Zhejiang issued a passenger, freight, and delivery safety opinion requesting all transport units to thoroughly check the identity and belongings of each Tibetan, Uyghur, foreign national, and other suspicious persons. In the same year, Zhengzhou railway police singled out 5,422 Uyghur and 608 Tibetan passengers for examination.

While its focus has shifted over the past few decades in response to new challenges to the CCP’s grip on power, political investigation by railway police has continued to be an important part of stability maintenance. From its origins in fighting overseas forces, political work along the rails has come to tackle the homegrown protests and dissent of rights-conscious Chinese citizens.  

* These areas were identified by Luoyang Railway Public Security in Henan Province for the period from 1986 through 1990 and appear consistent with work carried out by railway police nationwide during that time. back to top ↑