Human history is filled with violence. Since ancient times, murder and mayhem is a common occurrence in every pocket of the globe. The ability to destroy a person’s life is sometimes based on an inequality of power, the victim having less power to defend himself from an aggressor who has take an advantageous position and abuses his power over another. The one who has all the power then takes away the life of a human being.
This is no limited to individuals but a government can do the same. Aside from murder there is another human activity that must also be condemned because although it does not immediately take the life of a living person, its gradual effect can be likened to taking life one precious unit at a time. It is none other than torture and surprisingly the Chinese government is known to use it as an interrogation tactic and to silence its critics. This has to stop and China seems heading into the right direction in recent years.
After World War the many have come to know the brutality of the Nazi government led by Adolf Hitler. They were experts in the use of torture. For them it was not only about extracting information but to use torture as a means to degrade and to break down the will and the spirit of their enemies.
As a result world leaders, especially those working in conjunction with the United Nations, decided to initiate a convention against torture and their rationale for doing so was stated as follows: “Considering that, in accordance with the principles in the Charter of the United Nations, recognition of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world” (UN, p. 1) It does not matter if a person is a royal subject or under a communist regime he or she is a human being with inalienable rights.
In order to clarify the United Nations’ stand against torture they came up with the first ever definition of torture and it can be used in the international courts as a basis to determine if a regime or a certain political leadership is guilty of this offense and they wrote:
…torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such a purpose as obtaining from him or a third person information or confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of … a public official or other person acting in an official capacity (UN, p.1).
There are two things about this definition that stand out. First, it is the highlighting the kind of pain or suffering inflicted – that it is not limited to the physical but mental as well. This is crucial because torture methods can become sophisticated that there are no visual evidence of suffering but the mind of the person was already broken beyond repair.
Secondly, it is the insistence of the United Nations that torture is narrowly defined as an action inflicted at the instigation or acquiescence of a public official (UN, p.1). This will redirect the discussion on the allegation that China is perpetuating a bureaucracy that includes torture as one of their most effective tools of governance.
China’s Torture Chambers
According to Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, “The government maintains a system of laws and practices that give rise to torture” (Watts, p.1).
In1994 the United States sent U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher to confront then Prime Minister Li Peng regarding allegations of human rights abuse in China (Nelan, p.1) Li Peng responded by saying, “The Chinese government cares deeply about human rights” (Nelan, p.1). It is hard to believe and difficult to understand how the Prime Minister can see torture from a different light and consider barbaric practices as part of law enforcement protocol and good governance.
It is a well known fact that torture has always been a part of the government’s repertoire in the attempt to control a vast territory that extends as far as Tibet in Mongolia. According to the U.N. Committee on Torture there is reason to believe that: “…torture may be practiced on a widespread basis in China” (Holmstrom, p.26).
In the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, Wang Dan was arrested and imprisoned for 43 months for his leadership role (Nelan et al., p. 1). After his release he was picked up once again by the police and interrogated for 24 hours and was told to get out of Beijing (Nelan et al, p.1). If one will take a second look at the UN charter, the actions of the policemen are tantamount to torture.
Another disgusting facet of the use of torture is seen in the fact that it is not limited to suspected criminals but people who are perceived to be enemies of the state.
Human rights groups have always contended that brutality and degradation are common in Chinese prisons “…where many of the victims are from the Tibetan and Uighur ethnic minorities, political dissidents, followers of the banned Falun Gong sect and members of underground churches” (Watts, p.1). This is the Digital Age and yet many Chinese people still suffer because of their desire to practice their faith.
One of the most affected religious group is the sect called the Falun Gong. The Communist Party’s revulsion concerning this group may stem perhaps from the fact that it is one of China’s most ancient religions and a prime example of how vastly different is communism to the old way of life and so the party wanted it eliminated from their society.
In 1999 the government declared Falun Gong illegal and began to systematically round up and torture some of its members. “Some Falun Gong members have been tortured in custody and some have died” (Lipton, p.86). This is simply unacceptable.
While it is shocking to know that China uses medieval age tactics to coerce its people and to institute justice in her realms even as late at the 20th century, what is more appalling is the fact that the Chinese government is still backing up the use of torture even in the 21st century.
A UN special investigator was sent to China in 2005 and he discovered that immersion in sewage, ripping out fingernails, sleep deprivation, cigarette burns and beatings with electric pods are just some of the torture methods used by Chinese police officers and prison officials (Watts, p.1). However, it must be pointed out that the Chinese government is not one hundred percent indifferent towards the issue. But they want to take their time and sensitive to external prodding for them to transform law enforcement system.
A Step into the Right Direction
The Chinese government does not want any foreign country exerting their influence and telling them what to do. Outsider’s opinion does not matter to them whether it is in the form of advice regarding the way they do business or their policies with regards to human rights. It has to be understood that China is governed based on communist ideology and in a nutshell it simply means that the state takes precedence over the individual.
This is a mindset radically opposed to the western worldview wherein each human being has an inherent value and each one has freedom and inalienable rights as well as his right to pursue happiness. In communist China the state can do anything as long as it is for the perceived good of the state and society in general.
In recent years there seems to be positive signs that China is considering its stance regarding torture and working towards a future wherein the government will vigorously oppose the use of torture as part of intelligence gathering and governance. There are two reasons for this shift first of China hosted the 2008 Olympics and eyes of the whole world was riveted to this communist state.
North Korea may be as hardcore as China when it comes to socialism but it is only China who succeeded in marrying socialism and capitalism. And if one is in the game of capitalism there are certain rules to follow and part of it is dependence on trade partners although China has more than a billion people its leaders are wise enough to know that they cannot survive on their own, especially in a global market. So it is going to be expected that China will give out a few concessions, and a more open-minded China can be seen in the coming years.
Aside from concern of an economic backlash from the West there is another major reason why China is softening its stance regarding the use of torture in solving crimes and punishing criminals. There were two separate and related incidents wherein two suspects were tortured and forced to admit guilt only to find out a decade later they were innocent from the very beginning.
A convicted murder named Zhao Zuohai was acquitted after his supposed victim went home after disappearing for more than ten years (Hornby, p.1)
In a similar case a man who confessed to killing his wife was released from prison after his wife was found to be alive and well after 11 years of disappearance; unfortunately his mother died in prison when she was arrested after defending his son’s innocence, both were victims of torture (Hornby, p.1) As a result the Chinese government has issued guidelines to stop the use of torture in obtaining confessions or witness testimony (Jacobs, p.1). It is about time.
However, the world is hoping that China will go full blast with reforms and not hold back. The government must show proof that this time around they are serious about transforming their judiciary and law enforcement departments. “The larger problem, legal experts say, is the disconnect between China’s stated desire for the rule of law and the Communist Party’s insistence that the judicial system serve the party” (Jacobs, p,1). It must also be noted that this is not the first time that China has pledge to initiate change and yet unable to pull the trigger so to speak.
In 1995 the Chinese government sent a report to the United Nations committee against torture and in that said report they made known their intention to institute legal reforms specifically amendments to the Criminal Procedure Law (Holmstrom, p.26) However, the committee was dismayed when it discovered that the report is lacking in the most important issues, for instance: “The failure to incorporate the crime of torture into the domestic legal system, in terms consistent with the definition contained in article 1 of the Convention” (Holmstrom, p.26).
Nevertheless, the embarrassment generated by the wrong conviction of two men who were under duress when their confessions were taken can be the real wake-up call needed by China.
It must also be pointed out that the United Nations can only be certain of success if it can convince China to acknowledge that there are various forms of torture. Although China already outlawed torture as stated in a report they submitted to the UN Committee against torture, they simply defined torture as leaving physical marks, a definition so narrow it provided a way for officials to use other methods that can contravene UN standards (Watts, p.1)
For instance many torture victims were manacled in contorted positions, were deprived of sleep and subjected to psychological forms harsh treatment and all of these does not leave a mark but it does leave a lasting impact to the mind and spirit of the human being in custody (Watts, p.1). This has to stop.
International leaders, especially the United Nations were aware that torture is rampant in China. The international community already condemned these barbarous acts especially when it comes to using torture against dissidents – people who held dissimilar views than the government. In the United States it is called freedom of expression; in China it can be grounds for arrest and in some instance giving police officers the right to torture suspects in their custody.
It is a good thing that China is finally able to acknowledge the problem and has declared it illegal to use torture to obtain information from witnesses and to coerce a confession from a suspect. However, the United Nations must not give up the fight until the Chinese government will come to realize that the accurate definition of torture is found in the UN and not in the papers drafted by China’s communist party.
Holmstrom, Leif. Conclusions and Recommendations of the UN Committee Against Torture. MA: Kluwer Law International, 2000.
Hornby, Lucy. “New China rules rule out torture in confessions.” Accessed 12 October 2010. Available from http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE64T0WW20100530
Jacobs, Andrew. “China Bans Court Evidence Gained Through Torture.” The New York Times. Accessed 12 October 2010. Available from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/01/world/asia/01china.html?_r=1
Lipton, Edward. Religious Freedom in Asia. New York: Nova Science Publishers, 2002.
Nelan, B. et al. “Farewell My Trade Status.” Accessed 12 October 2010. Available from http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,980342,00.html
United Nations. “CONVENTION AGAINST TORTURE and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.” Accessed 12 October 2010. Available from http://www.hrweb.org/legal/cat.html
Watts, Jonathan. “Torture still widespread in China, says UN investigator.” Accessed 12 October 2010. Available from http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2005/dec/03/china.jonathanwatts