President Xi Jinping’s pledge to replace the abusive shuanggui system with a new detention system may prove to be a setback, not an improvement, if detainees’ rights are not respected, New York-based NGO Human Rights Watch has warned.

During his opening speech at the Communist Party congress on Wednesday, Xi pledged to “replace the practice of shuanggui with liuzhi.” Liuzhi – a new detention system – is part of wider reforms to the legal system.

“If President Xi’s proposal means that detainees are not ill-treated, get to choose their lawyers, and otherwise have their rights respected, then this will indeed be a significant step forward,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “But if he is just proposing to replace one abusive detention system with another, it will be another setback for legal reform in China.”

Photo: HRW.

Under shuanggui – which can be translated as “double designation” or “double regulation” – party members are ordered to appear at a designated time and place to answer for their actions. The practice has been credited in Xi Jinping’s fight against corruption.

Detainees are typically held in secret locations, without family members being notified about why or where they are being held. Former detainees have told foreign media in rare interviews about beatings, torture, sleep deprivation, and being forced to maintain uncomfortable positions for long periods. A report released by HRW in December corroborated these claims.

Unlike shuanggui, which has no legal basis, the new liuzhi system will be part of the State Supervision Law – a draft of which has not yet been released to the public. A new anti-graft agency, the National Supervision Commission – which will be operational in March – will have the power to hold and investigate people under the new system.

According to state media, liuzhi may offer improvements such as stricter internal procedures, adequate food and rest for detainees, and a time limit of 90 days for detention, with another 90 day extension if approval is obtained.

But HRW said that similar measures by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection – China’s secretive top anti-graft body – have failed to deter abuses in the shuanggui system. The NGO added that there is no indication that those held under the new liuzhi system will have access to lawyers or redress mechanisms – problems which facilitated rights abuses in the previous system, according to its previous report.

“China’s top legislature should ensure that basic rights protections for detainees are included in the new legislation regulating liuzhi,” Richardson said. “Otherwise liuzhi may simply be the legal, but no less abusive, twin of shuanggui – and no more likely to succeed in deterring corruption.”

Catherine Lai

Catherine is a Canadian journalist and photographer who lived in Beijing for almost two years, working in TV and online media. Aside from Hong Kong and mainland affairs, she is also interested in urban spaces, art and feminism. She holds a BA in Literature and Art History from the University of British Columbia.