China is in denial about its secret jails and torture in state custody, but the rest of the world should not be. The police-state apparatus that the Summer Olympics in Beijing was designed to make people forget is still very much in existence, as a United Nations report reminds us.
Forced hospitalization in psychiatric wards, intimidation of lawyers, judges subject to political control, people made to “disappear” – the full police-state playbook is in evidence, the UN Committee against Torture showed in a report last week. People trying to come to Beijing to petition the authorities for redress of their grievances may disappear into secret centres – “black jails” – without review by a judge. Even on death row, prisoners are subject to abusive conditions, such as being shackled 24 hours a day. And there are continued reports that organs are harvested from the executed without their prior consent, or their family's.
No police state would be complete without its grotesque absurdities – for instance, police officers torturing a woman to make her confess to prostitution, so they could fine a man for soliciting prostitutes, according to a brief prepared by Chinese lawyers for the UN committee. Many Chinese sources have corroborated reports that torture is routinely used to extract confessions or other information for criminal cases, the committee said.
China vigorously denies the committee's charges. It says it amended its law last year guaranteeing the right of lawyers to meet with suspects, and set in national law a rule excluding illegal evidence, barred torture to obtain confessions, and placed video cameras in interrogation rooms.
The state has taken some steps, but not very effective ones. As the UN committee pointed out, China still lacks an explicit bar to the use of confessions obtained under torture as evidence in court. It has no effective and independent system to monitor detainees. As for those cameras in interrogation rooms, they are under police control, according to the Chinese lawyers' brief. The police edit or delete them, as they see fit.
The world keeps hoping that China's modernization will lead to true democratization, and China feeds that hope by talking about a 12-year plan to establish public democratic involvement at all government levels. But where is the evidence? Without democratization, the worst forms of oppression will no doubt continue.