The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How the secretive, powerful agency in charge of investigating corrupt Chinese officials works

Disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai stands trial last year after being investigated by the Communist party's anti-corruption agency and expelled from the party. (Jinan Intermediate People's Court via Reuters)

BEIJING — Few people have seen the inside of the secretive, powerful agency in charge of investigating the Communist Party’s own members for corruption. Fewer still know how it works.

In the past year and a half, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection has risen from relative obscurity to become the main weapon in Xi Jinping’s rapid consolidation of power as China’s new leader.

We tried to pierce that veil of secrecy in our article today, talking to former and current staffers at the agency, advisers to the department and anti-corruption experts who have studied its work.

But we uncovered much more than could fit into our report. Here's the backstory with more fascinating details that provide a rare window into how the the party investigates its members and dishes out a harsh brand of party justice that's often politically motivated.

The inner sanctum

The secretive agency's headquarters doesn't show up on most maps and is guarded by a seven-foot wall, completely devoid of any placards. The only sign on its walls is a street number. We snapped these photos on a slow drive past the building before being chased away by guards outside.

Those who have gone inside describe unremarkable, boring office spaces. Sensitive files on past investigations — numbering in the tens of thousands — are kept under tight supervision and require special clearance to unlock. In the middle of the building’s garden stands a 350-year-old locust tree. Visitors are often told it's meant to symbolize the impartiality of justice.

But more often than not, insiders say,  party justice takes marching orders from the leaders above.

The politics of an investigation

It begins with a pre-investigation before a case is even filed. This pre-investigation phase is often the most crucial, during which investigators gather material to show higher up party poobahs, including members of the powerful Politburo.

An official, more extensive investigation is only launched if party leaders approve it. Once they do, guilt is often a foregone conclusion. For that reason, the green lighting of cases can get messy, given competing and internecine factions of the party.

After investigation, there’s a secret trial of sorts in the agency's case hearing room. Officials under investigation aren't allowed to attend, nor are any lawyers or advocates.

“It's not what most people would think of as a court. It’s basically agency officials reading out case findings to their superiors,” said one expert. Those found guilty can technically appeal, but no one knows of a single case that's been overturned.

While investigators wield extraordinarily expansive powers (they can seize evidence and detain any party member for months without warrant), some officials said there are theoretical limits to their power. Two party officials who have previously worked with the agency said internal rules forbid investigators to tap phones or conduct undercover work. But others, while describing past cases, seemed to hint such practices are sometimes used anyway.

The inspections & inquisitions

The other main job of the agency is inspections.

The arrival of an inspection teams in town is often met with trepidation. Two waves of inspections have been issued in the past two years with great propaganda fanfare to several provinces and state-owned enterprises.

According to witnesses, the teams often set up makeshift offices at local hotels for two to three months while they meet with dozens of low- and mid-level officials. Complaint boxes are often scattered locally to solicit anonymous tips.

While the inspection teams supposedly make their visits with no explicit agenda, agency insiders say many are sent with preordained targets as a result of agendas set by higher-up party bosses.

Being targeted by the agency can be a harrowing experience. Officials detained at by local disciplinary investigators describe  beatings, cigarette burns, sleep deprivation and simulated drowning.

Lin Zhe, a professor at the Central Party School, an influential party institution, has visited the disciplinary detention center in Shanghai.

The rooms mostly looked normal, with all the expected facilities — bathroom, tables, sofa, she said in an interview. The only sign of the room’s true purpose was the soft rubber walls. They were installed because too many officials had previously tried to commit suicide by banging their heads against the wall, she said.

"What they do is inhumane," said Yu Zusheng, whose son died as party investigators held his head under water in an interrogation last year, according to a government investigation. "They took such cruel measures against him. Why does the party treat their own officials this way?"

It's not exactly legal

It’s hard, of course, to feel sorry for corrupt party officials.

As satisfying as it is to see avaricious officials punished, human rights advocates say, the agency's secret investigations and interrogations also violate human rights and undermine the legal system. They note it's a kind of shadow party justice that exists entirely outside the legal system.

The true problem, left unaddressed, is that the party insists on policing itself, said human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, in an interview last month before he was arrested this month ahead of the Tiananmen Square anniversary.

“It is the guilty sitting in judgment of the guilty. It has nothing to do with law and justice,” he said.

Party leaders seem well aware of such sentiment. Many of the recent changes at the agency are intended to embue its investigations with a new aura of legitimacy and transparency. The agency has launched a Web site, new hotlines for tips and posted online more information than ever before about its regulations and procedures.

But the transparency is largely superficial, say many experts and officials. The agency remains highly secretive, even to those who work within it. In interviews, several mid-level officials said even they don't know basic details like how many people work at the agency and its overall budget.

“The work we do is important,” explained one. “But you must understand, it is sensitive.”