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The death of 29-year-old Lei Yang on May 7 while in police custody sparked a firestorm of criticism against the police across China. Under pressure to respond, Minister of Public Security Guo Shengkun, China’s highest-ranking police official, vowed to crack down on police abuse and educate the force to “consciously respect the law.” Beijing police promised an impartial investigation.

A “tiger chair” specially designed to restrain detainees. Former detainees say that police often strap them into these metal chairs for hours and even days, depriving detainees of sleep, and immobilizing them until their legs and buttocks were swollen. © 2014 Private

But unless those authorities are willing to do more than state the obvious, it’s unlikely that the ministry will restrain its officers. Recent Human Rights Watch research shows that ill-treatment and torture by police are persistent problems, partly because the police hold enormous power in China’s criminal justice system and are rarely held accountable. As one former police officer told Human Rights Watch, the problem isn’t a lack of understanding about what police can and cannot do with detainees: “We all knew that torture…was wrong, but the laws aren’t being enforced.”

If enforced, China’s existing laws and regulations could reduce mistreatment in detention. They require that the authorities conduct interrogations in detention centers designed to prevent physical abuse and allow detainees to lodge allegations of torture and ill-treatment, so that coerced confessions can be thrown out in court. The procuratorate – the state prosecution – should supervise the police, and offending officers should be appropriately disciplined or prosecuted.

In practice, however, those legal protections are ignored and the procuratorate and courts are loathe to challenge the police, whose cooperation is required to maintain high conviction rates and thus ensure “social stability” – an all-consuming goal of the Chinese Communist Party.

If China’s government is serious about reining in police abuses, fundamental reforms in the Chinese criminal justice system will be needed to effectively check police power. The government should transfer the power to manage detention centers from the Ministry of Public Security to the Ministry of Justice, ensure that anyone taken into police custody is promptly brought before a judge, and establish an independent Civilian Police Commission with the power to investigate alleged police misconduct, among other reforms. But in the absence of a willingness to prosecute abusive police and protect detainees’ rights, this kind of “education” is unlikely to end torture, or to restore public confidence in the country’s justice system.

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