YAOYU VILLAGE, China — For Liu Renwang, the village where he grew up is part home and part hell. Today he lives here in a one-story brick building that he helped build as a teenager 37 years ago. It’s surrounded by a small courtyard populated by dried-out corn husks and a few friends playing Chinese chess.

Walking out the courtyard gate, Liu turns left and strolls 30 yards down a village path before stopping suddenly.

“That’s it,” Liu says, pointing across the highway at the foot of the village. “That’s the hotel where they did it.”

By “they” he means seven members of the local police force. By “it” he means beat him as he dangled from the ceiling in handcuffs, poured boiling water over him while he squatted in a small metal cage, and hit him over the head with high-heeled boots until his short-term memory evaporated.                                

All in the name of justice.

Seven years ago, Liu was arrested and tortured until he confessed to the murder of a local village official. After five years in a jail cell, Liu’s conviction was overturned under new rules excluding evidence obtained through torture. Once released, Liu had a local artist draw a series of pictures illustrating the precise methods police used to torture him. The illustrations were picked up by Chinese media and quickly went viral.

Torture leading to wrongful convictions may be the darkest of the many stains on the Chinese criminal justice system. Weak investigative skills combined with intense pressure on police to solve all crimes have created a huge overreliance on confessions, often extracted under excruciating pain.

For years, stories of false confessions and wrongful convictions have haunted the nation. In several chilling cases, convicted “murderers” have endured torture and years in jail only to have their “victim” turn up alive. One provincial judge recently said that virtually all wrongful convictions in criminal cases relied on false confessions extracted through torture.

Liu’s ordeal illuminates the grisliest corners of China’s criminal justice system, and his release highlights a potential bright spot in the sweeping judicial reforms initiated by Chinese President Xi Jinping: a concerted push to redress wrongful convictions and curb the use of torture in interrogations.

Xi and his predecessors have amended the criminal code to protect suspects during the interrogation process and exclude evidence obtained under torture. New pilot programs are attempting to break the stranglehold local government officials maintain over judges and verdicts. Earlier this year, the Chinese government declared it would abolish arrest and conviction quotas that warp investigations and trials. Those reforms all seek to tamp down the worst abuses and build public confidence in the judicial system.

“I think [reforms to address wrongful convictions] are actually a positive story of legal reform, and I’m not Pollyannic about the subject in general,” says Ira Belkin, executive director of the US-Asia Law Institute. “But it does raise the question: Can you make significant positive strides in these cases while all this other negative stuff is going on?” 

To this day, the “negative stuff” abounds: a fierce crackdown on human rights lawyers, humiliating televised “confessions” by those who crossed authorities, the arrest or intimidation of grassroots activists ranging from feminists to environmentalists. Academics and activists say the scope and intensity of the crackdown has effectively crippled an emerging Chinese civil society that seeks to curb government excesses and empower citizens.

Somewhere between Liu’s release and the arrest of these activists lies Xi’s vision for the rule of law with Chinese characteristics — an efficient, rules-based system for ordinary citizens accused of ordinary crimes, but one that shows zero tolerance for grassroots challenges to Chinese Communist Party power.

That’s a model that aims to smother two sparks for social unrest: blatant miscarriages of justice and activists who publicize blatant miscarriages of justice. But given the sheer size of China’s sprawling judicial and police bureaucracies, Xi’s top-down reforms face a huge challenge. Can a highly centralized system — one that quashes all grassroots participation — possibly play watchdog over dingy interrogation rooms in villages across this vast country? 

Yaoyu Village is a dusty collection of homes carved into the yellow cliffs of China’s Loess Plateau. Born here in 1963, Liu was the fifth of nine siblings who grew up hungry. In order to increase his income and marriage prospects, at the age of 19, Liu began spending 10 hours a day in the depths of a coal mine.

China’s industrial boom created a voracious appetite for coal, and mining paid better than farm work. After 15 years in the mines, Liu had a wife, three children and enough money to buy a truck that he and his brother used to haul iron ore and coal.

“Back then we weren’t rich, but if my family wanted something I could basically meet their needs,” Liu recalls. “I felt that we were doing all right.”

That upward mobility came crashing down in the winter of 2008. In the predawn hours of Dec. 10, a local village official was shot dead in his home. The murder occurred just days before village elections, and police were under intense pressure to solve the case.

Liu was in the first batch of 30 men questioned and released in the first day. His brother, however, remained in custody as a person of interest. He was one of the candidates running against the victim, and the deceased had allegedly slashed Liu’s brother with a knife over a business dispute. A few evenings after the initial roundup, the police gave Liu a call.

“They said they had something to ask me,” Liu told The WorldPost. “I finished my dinner and went down to the police station. After I left, I didn’t come back. I was gone for five years.”

On arrival, police shackled Liu’s hands and feet to a custom-made desk sometimes called a “tiger chair.” Rotating groups of officers interrogated him for two days straight, hitting him over the head every time he began to nod off. When that didn’t yield a confession, they hung him in handcuffs from a heating pipe on the ceiling. They would let him dangle until he began to lose consciousness and then put a brick on the ground that his toes could just barely reach. When he regained consciousness they’d pull the brick away. He says he didn’t sleep for 10 days.

“When I went back to the holding cell, my mouth was always crooked. I was completely deformed.” 

The second round featured boiling coffee poured in his nose, an electrified baton for his neck and a small metal cage in which he was forced to squat. Liu’s hands were shackled to the front and his head protruded out a hole in the top so that his bodyweight pulled on his neck. The interrogation cycled through different police officers and methods of torment: metal files under his fingernails, boiling water on his head, old-fashioned beatings. Rinse, repeat.

When Liu’s first lawyer came from Beijing to meet with his client, he was turned away at the prison gate.

“They told him, ‘This is Zhongyang County. This isn’t the capital.’” Liu said. “‘You think you can see him whenever you want? You don’t have that right here.’”

The Zhongyang County Public Security Bureau and both of Liu’s lawyers declined to be interviewed for this piece. However, a blog post written in 2008 by Liu’s first lawyer describes being barred from meeting Liu in prison. Liu’s allegations of torture methods are also consistent with several accounts of police torture in the Chinese press and reports by human rights groups.

As the weeks went on, Liu’s pain, confusion and rage mounted until it felt like his head was about to explode. When he couldn’t hang on any longer, he started confessing to anything and everything they asked for. He did it with an accomplice. He did it by himself. He rode off on a motorcycle. He didn’t have a motorcycle. Anything to make it stop.

After 57 days and more than a dozen different confessions, it did.

Emerging from the interrogation, Liu was physically and mentally broken, but confident justice would be served. He told his cellmates he’d be set free as soon as he told the judge what happened.

It wasn’t until Liu heard “guilty, deferred death sentence” that the reality sank in.

“They all breathe through the same mouth,” Liu said. “If the police make a mistake, the prosecutors won’t correct it. If the prosecutors make a mistake, the court won’t correct it. They’re all just one dragon.”

Xi’s judicial reforms are aimed at slicing up that dragon. China’s courts have traditionally been cogs in the political and security apparatus — reliant on local officials for funding and police for investigations. Judges often find themselves at the mercy of local officials who use their power to shield a cousin’s factory or their own misdeeds in court.

Breaking down these local fiefdoms requires taking the power of the purse away from officials. Piloted reforms would move funding for courts up to the provincial level and create circuit courts that straddle political boundaries. This centralization of funding and oversight is intended to insulate the courts from the whims of local officials, legal experts say. This May, the government also hacked away at the power of local authorities to dismiss lawsuits, leading to a 221 percent surge in citizen lawsuits over government actions.

Xi and his predecessors have also introduced reforms targeting torture. Interrogations in major cases must theoretically be videotaped, and new “exclusionary rules” mandate that evidence obtained under torture be thrown out. Judges appointed under Xi have been public and vocal about the problem of wrongful convictions and torture. Though accurate numbers are hard to come by, scholars say that courts have accelerated efforts to overturn wrongful convictions from years past, with at least 1,317 cases retried in 2014.

The goal, according to Xi, is to ensure that “the popular masses feel that they have received fairness and justice in every case.” That’s a daunting task, but one that both Xi and scholars say is crucial to the survival of the Communist Party.

“If his whole project of legal reform — of revitalizing the China Dream and the Party — is going to be successful, it will hinge upon public perception of whether or not these reforms are successful in delivering the sense of justice that they want,” said Maya Wang, a researcher at Human Rights Watch.

The jury is still out on that question, but early results have not been promising. A Human Rights Watch study found that two years after anti-torture protections went into effect, police and judges either worked around or ignored most provisions. Out of 432 criminal verdicts that mentioned allegations of torture, evidence was rarely excluded and zero defendants were acquitted. A recent study by Amnesty International came to much the same conclusion: torture remained widespread, with human rights lawyers among the targets as well. 

Carl Minzner, a scholar of Chinese law and governance at the Fordham University School of Law, says those problems are likely to persist as long as the Party maintains a monopoly on oversight.

“Real institutional change requires you to have an organic evolution,” Minzner told The WorldPost. “An organic evolution requires not just top-down policy changes. … You have to create some space for people at the bottom of the system to begin to use the channels.”

Professor He Jiahong, a Chinese legal scholar writing a book on torture, says the problem is as much educational as institutional: police and judges across China’s far-flung villages need to be both restrained and retrained. Hundreds of thousands of police officers need to expand their investigative skillset beyond beating a suspect senseless. Defense lawyers accustomed to conviction rates of 99.9 percent need to learn how to stick up for their clients. Judges who spent decades rubber-stamping the prosecution’s case need to learn to challenge police conclusions.

“When we have provisions on paper at a legislative level, we have to wait some years for those provisions to be carried out at the grassroots level,” said Professor He. “China is a huge country and it might take 10 years.”

For Liu Renwang, justice took five years. He spent most of that time sitting in a communal cell with his hands and feet cuffed together. Card games were the only jailhouse diversion, but the lingering effects of his beatings meant he couldn’t join in — whenever the game came around to him, he couldn’t remember what anyone else had played.

During those years, Liu’s second lawyer seized on China’s new exclusionary rule to throw out the confessions Liu had made under torture. Without those confessions the prosecutor’s case collapsed, and on Dec. 27, 2013, Liu found himself standing outside the prison’s gate.

“When people get out of prison, they’re supposed to be happy,” Liu told The WorldPost. “When I came out, I felt heavy, depressed.”

On the car ride home he sobbed uncontrollably for half an hour while his wife and son tried to comfort him. 

While Liu was away, the cave home he’d lived in since birth had collapsed. He moved the family into an abandoned school that he helped build as a teenager, and today his wife washes clothes in a neighboring town for a living. Liu’s short-term memory and body remain deeply scarred. He says he can’t work, and instead spends his time applying for the government compensation that he has yet to receive.

Whenever possible, he prefers to stay away from the village he grew up in. He hates the stares, the people who turned against him, the hotel in the distance that was the scene of his torment.

Liu credits President Xi’s legal reforms with his release, saying he would still be in prison if it weren’t for top-down reforms and increased transparency. But looking at his life in the village ― at the fact that two years after release he’s yet to receive any compensation ― Liu says he doesn’t believe things have truly changed out here.

“Your life is in someone else’s hands. If they say you’re going in, then you’re going in. If they say you’re coming out, then that’s what’s happening.”

This was produced by The WorldPost, which is published by the Berggruen Institute.

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