30 years on from the adoption of the U.N. Convention Against Torture, Amnesty International has launched a new campaign highlighting widespread failure to adhere to its terms. “Torture is not just alive and well – it is flourishing in many parts of the world,” the organization’s secretary general Salil Shetty commented. “As more governments seek to justify torture in the name of national security, the steady progress made in this field over the last thirty years is being eroded.” Amnesty has documented the use of torture in 141 of the 142 countries it monitors in the last five years, and in 79 of these this year alone.
The campaign includes a major survey on attitudes towards torture, covering 21,221 people across 21 countries [PDF]. China is among them, leading the world—together with India, at 74%—in public support for the proposition that “torture is sometimes necessary and acceptable to gain information that may protect the public.” Overall, 36% of those surveyed worldwide agreed. The question implies a focus on terrorism prevention rather than criminal justice or political persecution, at a time when cities across China are ramping up security in response to a series of attacks by alleged Uyghur militants. The survey was conducted between December 2013 and April 2014, well after a jeep crash and fire at Tiananmen last October. It is unclear, though, whether the Chinese results were gathered before or after the most serious incident yet, in which 29 civilians were knifed to death and another 140 injured at Kunming railway station on March 1st. [Update: Chinese interviews were carried out throughout the December-April period, both before and after the Kunming attack.]
Only 25% of Chinese respondents expressed fear that they would be tortured if taken into custody, well below 32% in the U.S. and 44% overall. Amnesty’s campaign manager Sara MacNeice addressed the finding in an interview with Deutsche Welle:
We know for a fact that China has an extremely poor track record on this issue. We know that China is certainly guilty of infringing international law, breaking the law and torturing people. Yet we don’t necessarily see that fear as clearly reflected there.
[…] That could be a number of factors; probably one of the more likely explanations would be the environment in which these surveys take place. The organization GlobeScan, who we worked with to conduct this survey, works with trusted partners in these countries. But the reality is that the question ‘Do you fear torture?’ is going to feel very different to somebody in China, in a country with a human rights record as it is, than it might do for an individual in Germany. [Source]
While strong public support for the practice may appear a formidable obstacle to torture opponents in China, another finding offers hope. Despite their government’s traditional opposition to intrusion into countries’ domestic affairs, the Chinese surveyed were among those most likely to support clear international rules against torture. 87% somewhat or strongly agreed that such rules are “crucial,” within two points of leaders South Korea and Greece, and above both the U.S. (77%) and the international average (82%).
China is not a primary focus of the campaign’s introductory report, but is nonetheless identified as one of the Asia-Pacific’s worst offenders [PDF, pp. 33-4], among several countries whose police forces “at times torture individuals during interrogation and pre-trial detention, often forcing detainees to ‘confess’ to a crime. Sometimes prisoners are even tortured to death.”
Authorities in China also punish activists for their work, including by denying them medical treatment, even when their lives depend on it. In March 2014, Cao Shunli, aged 52, died from organ failure in a hospital in Beijing after officials at the prison she was held in for five months repeatedly prevented her from receiving the medical treatment she needed.
In what was hoped to be a positive move, at the end of 2013, China announced the abolition of “Re-education Through Labour” camps – detention centres used to hold and punish people, without charge or trial, including for their political activities or religious beliefs.
Changes, however, have been largely cosmetic and individuals are still held in similarly brutal conditions in other forms of arbitrary detention. [Source]
Two men were released from prison last year in the face of evidence that their confessions to rape and murder a decade previously had been forced with sleep deprivation and stress positions. Two groups who appear particularly vulnerable are rights lawyers and officials under investigation in the notorious shuanggui internal disciplinary system. A group of lawyers claimed to have been tortured in detention after investigating a rumored black jail in Heilongjiang earlier this year, for example, while six officials in Zhejiang were imprisoned in October for the fatal mistreatment of state-owned enterprise employee Yu Qiyi.
Abuse of prisoners is said to have been particularly rife in Bo Xilai’s Chongqing: one victim, Fan Qihang, was reportedly driven to attempt suicide by running headfirst into a wall. Neither Bo nor his former right-hand man, police chief Wang Lijun, was held accountable for these acts, though as in the Yu Qiyi case, some lower-level police officers have been tried. Testimony omitted from official transcripts suggested that Bo himself faced serious mistreatment during the investigation against him, fainting 27 times during hundreds of interrogations.