Human-rights lawyers, activists, and people accused of crimes are regularly tortured, detained, and subject to other forms of mistreatment, according to a report released Thursday by Amnesty International.
For the report, Amnesty interviewed 37 lawyers practicing in China and multiple experts in the Chinese criminal-justice system, as well as analyzed 590 court decisions involving torture claims and "forced confessions."
China's response has been schizophrenic at best.
The country voluntarily joined the UN Convention against Torture, or UNCAT, in 1986 and has made efforts in recent years to put an end to torture and forced confessions through a series of legal initiatives, amendments, and regulations. The most notable reform was the ending of the "reeducation through labor" system in 2013.
This summer, Chinese President Xi Jinping launched a sweeping crackdown on human-rights lawyers, detaining nearly 250 of them in a move that many saw as a warning to any would-be activists.
Hong Lei, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, told The New York Times in response to the new report that Chinese law expressly forbids obtaining confessions through torture.
"China is a country of rule of law," Hong said.
But evidence collected by Amnesty International and testimony from a wide swath of human-rights lawyers in China would seem to indicate otherwise.
"I know from personal experience how widespread torture is in China's current law-enforcement environment. I hope one day to see torture classified in China as a crime against humanity," lawyer Yu Wensheng told Amnesty in the report.
Yu, a lawyer with Beijing-based Daoheng Law Firm, was arrested in 2014 and held for 99 days, refused access to a lawyer, and questioned more than 200 times. Yu was eventually handcuffed with his hands bound behind the back of an iron chair.
"My hands were swollen and I felt so much pain that I didn't want to live. The two police officers repeatedly yanked the handcuffs. I screamed every time they pulled them," said Yu.
The Chinese government has denied any "maltreatment" of Yu.
Other reported torture techniques include being bound to "tiger benches," beatings, sleep deprivation, starvation, dehydration, and psychological torture.
According to Amnesty International, the 37 interviewed lawyers "almost uniformly concur" that police officers in China widely use torture to obtain forced confessions from suspects in pretrial detention.
Often, Chinese lawyers who attempt to litigate cases where clients have had their human rights violated find that they end up becoming victims of torture from police officials. One lawyer told Amnesty that he was beaten and detained by police officers after trying to investigate the detainment of several practitioners of Falun Gong, a banned Chinese spiritual practice.
The Chinese government claims that its courts "carry out prompt and fair trials of cases of infringement of citizens' rights involving torture."
Official data from China found that the nation's top prosecutorial body received nearly 1,500 reports of "extracting confession through torture" over the last seven years. Only 279 people were convicted of the offense.
According to lawyers interviewed in the report, one of the biggest reasons that torture has remained so widespread despite official censure is that police officers still view it as an expedient way to obtain evidence.
"Trials are often a matter of dressing up police work. Police will stop at nothing to crack a case, and once they can get a confession, the presumption of guilt carries through to the very end," lawyer Tang Jitian told Amnesty.
In the cases analyzed by Amnesty International, where confessions were allegedly obtained through torture, courts routinely admitted the forced confessions. Of the 590 cases analyzed, courts suppressed the confessions in only 16 cases. Only one of those 16 cases resulted in an acquittal.
In addition, police are far more powerful in China than courts or prosecutors, thereby making it difficult for courts to prosecute police officers who torture citizens or obtain forced confessions.
"Since the establishment of the [People's Republic of China], the police have been the most powerful organ in the criminal process and the courts' role has been marginal. In this police-centric system, the court cannot be effective in vetoing a police decision," Fu Hualing, a law professor and a criminal-justice expert at the University of Hong Kong, told Amnesty.
The United Nations Committee against Torture has repeatedly called out China for it's failure to comply with UNCAT, an agreement it joined voluntarily. China will undergo another review of its torture record, as required by UNCAT, in Geneva, Switzerland, next week.