Downfall of a Chinese Torturer Signals Winds of Change in Chinese Politics

June 24, 2015 Updated: June 30, 2015

The most powerful judicial official in a populous northeastern Chinese province has been suddenly felled from his post after being hauled in for questioning by Communist Party investigators.

Chinese officials subject to investigation, with their extravagance and criminality, rarely make for sympathetic figures at the best of times. But there’s a group of Chinese—practitioners of Falun Gong, a spiritual discipline—who will be particularly interested to see the reckoning that awaits Zhang Jiacheng, formerly the head of the Department of Justice of Liaoning Province.

For over a decade, Zhang ordered and supervised their capture, enslavement, torture, and murder for body parts.

Screen Shot 2015-06-24 at 11.13.22 AM
Portrait of Zhang Jiacheng (Screen shot/

He held a number of key roles in the legal and political Party machinery in Liaoning for over a decade, including: deputy Party secretary or full secretary in a handful of cities and counties; deputy Party secretary of the provincial Politics and Law Commission. Unusual for official Party sources, they do not identify the dates in which he held these posts, but it is known that he held the last—head of the Department of Justice—from sometime in 2012 until June 15, when the provincial Party disciplinary apparatus announced that he was being put under investigation.

A Jailer’s Legacy

Zhang Jiacheng presided over the provincial security apparatus in Liaoning during a period of extreme brutality. The province was the “center of harvesting for religious prisoners,” in the words of journalist Ethan Gutmann, whose most recent book was dedicated to investigating the mass execution of Falun Gong practitioners for their vital organs, so that they could be sold.

Panjin Prison in Liaoning was described as “hell on earth” in accounts by those who were jailed there. The infamous penal institution was run by Song Wanzhong, an official personally handpicked and promoted by Zhang. Under Song, Falun Gong practitioners were subject to electric shocks, force-feeding, and sleep deprivation. Guards at Panjin were given cash bonuses and positive evaluations for each person who they caused to reject their faith. Other prisoners had the sentences reduced if they helped to abuse Falun Gong practitioners.

Zhang provided a more personal touch at other jails. Xinhu Prison, a facility funded and built by Liaoning’s Department of Justice, was referred to as “The Education and Transformation Base of Falun Gong” in late 2007 after a large-scale detention of practitioners. Chen Taibao, the director of Liaoning’s prison administration bureau, and Zhang were known to visit Xinhu and provide “guidance” for the kinds of abuses that were most effective.

Under Zhang’s tenure, the persecution of Falun Gong in Liaoning became one of the most severe in the nation. According to Minghui, an overseas website that carries Falun Gong information and news, in Liaoning there are 9,970 reported cases of Falun Gong practitioner torture and abuse, and 462 known deaths as of June this year.

Zhang has been listed by the World Organization to Investigate the Persecution of Falun Gong (WOIPFG), a nonprofit that gathers evidence of abuses against the spiritual discipline, for his active role in the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners—in particular for one high-profile case.

Burnt Face

In May 2004 Gao Rongrong was detained for practicing Falun Gong in Liaoning. A little over a year later, she died while in custody, her face horribly scarred by electric batons her torturers used in an attempt to have her sign a statement renouncing Falun Gong.

Gao’s sister managed to photograph her charred, disfigured face while she was being treated at the Shenyang Public Security Hospital in Liaoning Province. Her family took up the matter with the provincial procuratorate—an investigation and prosecution body—and then helped her escape. But she was captured shortly afterward, and placed in detention again, where she remained until being killed in custody at the age of 37.

Given the abundance of documentation available on her abuse, Amnesty International picked up Gao’s case and called for appeals to the Chinese authorities to start a “full, independent and impartial investigation” into her death, as well as for the release of four Falun Gong practitioners who were known to have been detained and abused. Amnesty also called on the Chinese regime to end the “re-education through labor” system used to target Falun Gong.

Zhang Jiacheng was at the time the director and Party secretary of Liaoning’s Department of Justice, according to contemporaneous reporting. Zhou Yongkang, the recently purged security czar, headed the public security ministry in 2005.

Clear Out

A decade later, those who had a part to play in the persecution of Falun Gong in Liaoning—presumably targeted for their factional affiliations, rather than abuses as such—are being swept up by Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign.

On April 1, the Communist Party’s anti-corruption agency announced that Panjin Prison’s Song Wanzhong was being investigated for “severe violations of Party discipline and law”—parlance for bribery and abuse of power. The same charge was leveled against Zhang in the June 15 notice.

More than 30 officials from Liaoning’s political and legal system have been purged over the last two years, according to incomplete data from state-funded news website Peng Pai. Last August alone saw the investigation of 25 officials, including Zhang Dongyang, former procurator-general in Shenyang; Chen Zhanglin, former vice president of Shenyang Rail Transportation Middle People’s Court; Wang Junren, director of police station in Guta District, Jinzhou City; and Ju Chuanjie, and head of people’s court in Fengcheng City.

And at the same time, Xi appears to be inserting loyal officials in key positions. Li Xi, a known ally of Xi Jinping, became governor of Liaoning in October 2014, and was also appointed to the position of provincial Party secretary.

“The three provinces in northeast China are China’s industrial heartland, which are very important to the Chinese economy. However, Jiang’s faction has controlled these three provinces for the past twenty years,” wrote Xia Xiaoqiang, a columnist for the Chinese edition of Epoch Times.

“What appeared to be normal government job handover in Liaoning Province was in fact a political struggle between two different political forces.”