Working to Protect Your Human Rights

In Communist controlled “liberated districts” of Japanese occupied China, your local treason elimination squad was directed to safeguard your human rights (保障人权). We recognize in this the message of the propaganda workers of the Communist Party security forces today. Clearly there has often been a gap between the official line and the reality. However, in the modern history of China, the breadth of that gap has never been a constant, either across place or time. Nor should anyone interested in China cynically dismiss such proclamations as merely propaganda. The “protection of human rights” has been official policy, and yes, even a priority of the Chinese Communist Party for much longer than is generally appreciated.

There are two obvious problems that any careful China observer will note: 1) The definition of the phrase does not always, or perhaps ever, correspond all that closely with what most of us might offer. 2) Like almost all similar declarations of principles in Communist regimes, these priorities are always relative to whatever other pressing demands there are at both the national level and within the highly local contexts in which one’s “human rights” might get thrown in as chips on the table.

Still, it is worth remembering that the CCP is not, and has never been, immune to public opinion. It has always been aware of how arbitrary violence and unjustifiable cruelty can damage its legitimacy. Now, anyone who has browsed through a book on modern Chinese history will undoubtedly come across passages that suggest how, at times, local and national level party cadres have shown an almost unbelievable incapacity to appreciate this basic fact, especially when it has engaged in self-defeating cannibalization of its own ranks during fits of political hysteria. It is often at the conclusion, or nearing the conclusion of such internal party witch-hunts, however, that we see appeals go out to cadres to remember the party’s dedication to the “safeguarding of human rights.”

An example of this which I have been seeing a lot of these last few weeks in an archive I’m now spending my days, is found in the internal reports, “opinion” letters, and guidelines issued by various divisions of the Shandong “treason elimination committees” (锄奸委员会)of the Communist Party operating under the auspices of the public security bureau.1

These committees operated all over Shandong, even as all the major cities, towns, and railways were under Japanese control. These cadres were a busy lot, having been given responsibility for hunting out pro-Japanese collaborators, pro-Japanese spies, Nationalist spies (especially after 1941), and the diabolical, if usually imaginary, Trotskyists. Their reports, many of which I am grateful to be given access to here, were often scratched in tiny handwriting on toilet paper sized documents or thin and almost transparent pieces of paper. I still have over a hundred similar documents to look at, if my vision holds, but already one sees a pattern of alternating exhortations to show greater vigilance in rooting out the traitors, especially the “internal traitors,” and stern letters of criticism issued to local treason elimination committees whose orgy of violence occasionally led to a mass backlash against the party.

These documents are not for outside consumption, and can often be quite blunt. An early sign of something unpleasant going on an in a district is found when a report refers to “reckless arrests and reckless killings” (乱捕乱杀)in an area. These are not always being carried out by Communist anti-treason units, and in at least one case I have come across describes how party officials helplessly stood by as over a hundred “reckless” killings were carried out by a local “self-defense” militia. Usually, however, this is the term used to report the excessive violence of their subordinate units, often coupled, in the “interrogations” section of the report, with concern expressed for the fact that, “torture (刑讯) continues to be employed instead of the recommended approach of persuasion (说服)and education.”

Sometimes, rather than being found in a report criticizing a local unit, we find local treason elimination units themselves referring to their efforts to get rid of torture in accordance with party policy. One report, for example, claims that torture has been basically eliminated but that for “important cases” they still have the capacity for “special” interrogations (“基本上停止用刑讯,强调政治动员,因而技术也被迫提高,如有特别重大的案件, 还有专门審委會的建立”). The same report notes that, thanks to these and other improvements in the care of prisoners, both the suicide and escape rates among detainees dropped.

The unfortunate “mistakes” of some units has led, several reports lament, to many “misunderstandings” amongst both local party cadres and the masses, and almost every report calls for greater efforts to overcome the tendency of local populations to “mystify” (神秘化)the practices of the treason-elimination squads.

Several documents I came across concern a case of “reckless arrests, reckless killings, and reckless torture” in Laixi (莱西)county in eastern Shandong in 1944. I haven’t yet found any statistics on the number of deaths or arrests involved in this particular case, but the letters being directed to the Laixi treason elimination committee display an unusual degree of urgency. The most direct letter claimed that the arrests and killings were counterproductive, “a violation of the party policy of protecting the human rights of the people” and had led to a situation in which the local masses were in a state of fear and dissatisfaction towards the party (“…锄奸秩序的混乱…群众对我们恐慌不满甚而有的群众公开提示__这是我党在政治上严重_损失” some characters are unreadable). Two letters (one may have been a shorter draft of the other longer letter) order the Laixi treason elimination squad to:

1. Establish a strict policy of arresting only those traitors agreed upon by approval of the committee, and based on evidence.
2. The emphasis is to be on political education of prisoners, and incorporating the masses into the work of eliminating traitors.
3. All confiscated property is to be subject to a strict system of registration and corruption charges will be brought against cadres who do not follow these rules.
4. It is forbidden to torture any of the criminals, and they shall not be beaten, abused, or subject to insult and humiliation (打骂污辱) or any kind of physical punishment (肉刑).

Time and again, the phrase “protection of human rights” is repeated as a principle at stake even as concern about the loss of mass support is showcased as a serious consequence of the problem.

A separate and highly detailed report (also 1944) from various districts controlled by Communist forces outside of Weihai speaks of similar problems. In the section on interrogation, it concludes that cadres in the districts of that area are “not bad” (不错) when it comes to “protecting human rights” but lists a number of disturbing cases that show areas for improvement. In particular it was concerned with reports that some cadres continued to hang prisoners (not sure exactly what this entails: 吊人), tie prisoners up, beat them, and engage in cruel torture (酷刑).

It attributes these violations of human rights to two factors, which I found to generally be as applicable to cases around the world today as they were in 1944:

1) Some cadres have a very vague (模糊)understanding of human rights. They have not engaged in sufficient study of the treason elimination policies. The report argues that it is merely an lack of education that leads to acts of cruelty in many cases.

2) Other cadres’ “ability to carry out their work is weak, and they believe that if they don’t beat the prisoners they won’t be able to get results. They have abandoned the perspective of educating the masses. All they can do is beat or tie up the prisoners in order to make any progress, thus forgetting the principle of protecting human rights.

The document recommends the following “good cop” approach to interrogations which I think mirrors most of what we know about how many Japanese and American prisoners of war experienced the (more effective of the) Communist interrogators in places like China and Korea:

When interrogating the criminals take into account the different conditions they are in, their personality, psychology, the severity of their crime, and their varying degrees of education. Try to appeal to them, seek their trust and their sympathy, and make them believe that only you can solve their problem, while trying to transfer their hatred of us onto the enemy. Make them trust that we are their benefactor and seek to raise their political consciousness…2

A major problem, of course, is the uneven implementation of these policies, both then, and most likely, even now. Also, this does not begin to address what happens to those who confess guilt in the hands, after all, of the treason elimination squads.

So far, the local statistics I have come across are very mixed in terms of sentencing. In the Bohai area in northwestern Shandong, for example, one chart claims that 110/149 “traitors” (in this case, pro-Japanese collaboration) were shot from 1942 to the first half of 1946, but those deaths of prisoners held by the 行政公署 (what is the best translation of that?) do not include those killed by the treason elimination squads operating in that area, which likely amount to significantly larger totals. In the Weihai area, at least from January to March 1944, however, over 70% of “traitors” in custody of the treason elimination squads were released without punishment.3

  1. At least after February, 1941, the second time it was shuffled around.  

  2. Contact me if you want detailed archive file references, or wait for my dissertation.  

  3. The numbers from those three months are almost the same as the five and a half years of the Bohai “traitors” in the previously mentioned chart. This included all flavors of “treason,” which according to the chart, apparently included “gambling” listed alongside being “interpreter” for the Japanese, “puppet” principal of school in Japanese, or Nationalist party spies, showing that, at least by 1944, the anti-treason squads had expanded to fill the functions of regular police – an issue I’ll have to address in my dissertation. These kinds of statistics also do not include, I believe, deaths resulting from “mass participation” in the “struggle” sessions associated with the separate anti-traitor movement launched as the close of the war approached. This was often intentionally combined, to great effect, with the “rent and interest reduction” campaign that preceded full land reform. It needs to be looked at in its own distinct context.  


  1. One report, for example, claims that torture has been basically eliminated but that for “important cases” they still have the capacity for “special” interrogations (”基本上停止用刑讯,强调政治动员,因而技术也被迫提高,如有特别重大的案件, 还有专门審委會的建立”). The same report notes that, thanks to these and other improvements in the care of prisoners, both the suicide and escape rates among detainees dropped.
    You seem to be hinting at dark implications of the “special” in 专门審委會 but not sure where you’re getting that from in context of the sentence – seems more to follow on from previous clause saying that interrogation skills have of necessity been improved now they have stopped using torture. Seems more to imply a “dedicated” 審委會 that can bring these skills to bear in a coordinated way in major cases. Or is the term used with the more sinister connotations elsewhere?

  2. Thanks for pointing this out. I think you may be right. I am probably reading too much into 专门審委會. This was all written in the section of the report on 审讯工作 and there wasn’t any further description of the dedicated 審委會. I think I misread this. There is a lot more in the same report on the torture still being used in some districts and the need to replace it with the 说服教育 method but it is always condemnatory in nature so it does seem out of context to admit to such an exception. Thanks again.

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