China's parliament on Tuesday passed a law ushering in a new era of "national supervision" to replace an internal party disciplinary regime, sparking concerns of further human rights abuses.
The law passed by the National People's Congress (NPC) will set up nationwide supervisory commissions to monitor the conduct of staff in the ruling Chinese Communist Party, People's Congresses, government departments, judicial agencies, state-owned enterprises, and government-backed institutions, including state schools and higher education.
The new system massively expands the number of people under the watchful eye of investigators charged with seeking out corruption and abuse of official power, official media reported.
Under a pilot scheme rolled out last year, the number of state and party employees "under effective surveillance" has massively increased, state news agency Xinhua reported, adding that contractors working for state and party organizations will also come within the remit of the new system.
The new commission merges the functions of the Communist Party's internal Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, administrative supervisory agencies, and some functions of state prosecution services.
The commissions will be set up at the national, provincial, and local level, and have the power to question witnesses, interrogate suspects, search properties, freeze bank accounts, and seize suspicious assets, Xinhua said.
They can also detain suspects for up to six months "at a designated location" with the approval of higher-ranking commissions, and prevent people from leaving China.
"Food, rest, and safety should be guaranteed and medical care provided for those in custody," the agency said.
'Systemic threat' to rights
But London-based rights group Amnesty International hit out at the new law, saying it is a "systemic threat" to people's rights.
"It places tens of millions of people at the mercy of a secretive and virtually unaccountable system that is above the law," the group's East Asia director Nicholas Bequelin said.
"It by-passes judicial institutions by establishing a parallel system solely run by the Chinese Communist Party with no outside checks and balances," he said. "The Supervision Law is a systemic threat to human rights in China."
He added: "It allows for arbitrary and prolonged incommunicado detention without any meaningful oversight and increases the risks of torture and forced ‘confessions’."
Under the new system, supervisory bodies can detain and interrogate virtually anyone working directly or indirectly for the government, including judges, academics, and employees of state-owned companies, Becquelin said.
While the system is intended to replace the widely-criticized internal disciplinary system of the Chinese Communist Party, it is still incompatible with international human rights laws and standards, Amnesty International said.
At the national level, the Supervisory Commission is ranked higher than the Supreme People’s Court and the top prosecutor’s office, it said.
Judiciary further weakened
Overseas pro-democracy activist Xiang Lin said the move would also further weaken China's judiciary, which already lacks independence from other arms of the state.
"The ministry of justice doesn't play much of a role now, because it no longer has responsibility for cases involving party members and civil servants. All that will be done by the new supervisory commissions," Xiang said.
"[Justice minister Fu Zhenghua] has no real power any more," he said."All the justice ministry does now is administer lawyers and the court system. He's nowhere near as powerful as the public security minister."
Hu Ping, the New York-based editor of the Chinese-language monthly Beijing Spring, said the supervisory regime will be headed by Yang Xiaodu, but his former boss at the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), vice president Wang Qishan, will hold the real power behind the anti-graft campaigns.
"In future, Wang Qishan's role will have two aspects," Hu wrote in a recent commentary broadcast on RFA's Mandarin Service. "One is in the capacity of vice president ... since Xi Jinping is very reliant on Wang Qishan, he will delegate much of his authority to him."
"We all know that Wang Qishan is deeply trusted by Xi Jinping, and that his opinion represents Xi’s opinion," Hu said. "So, under normal circumstances, everyone will go along with his opinions, and Wang Qishan will carry more weight than the other members of the [seven-person] Politburo standing committee."
Yang isn't a member of the Politburo standing committee. According to Hu, Xi's patronage means that Wang is now the second most-powerful Chinese leader, despite ranking lower than those on the Politburo standing committee in the Communist Party hierarchy.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.