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The story of Wilson Wang illustrates how China's Communist Party disciplines 'corrupt officials' with brutal tactics that critics call torture. Through interviews with Mr. Wang's lawyers, his family in Canada and accounts from other survivors, Nathan VanderKlippe looks inside the dark world of shuanggui

Wilson Wang was held for 54 days in a form of interrogation known as shuanggui, which exists outside the boundaries of China’s normal legal system. His photo is overlaid with the words of Wang Yuming, a man who brought attention to the shuanggui system when he wrote an account of his treatment, posted online by his wife and titled 44 Days in Hell, in which he described being burned by cigarettes and whipped with his own belt after he was taken into shuanggui in 2012 on corruption allegations.

Behind the long grey wall is a garden courtyard. Done in a traditional Chinese style, it is the kind of treed space that might fit nicely into a countryside resort. Benches look out over a small pond and the grounds are dotted with pagodas. Next to the garden, behind a gate marked with a sign indicating the entrance to the Wuhu Centre for Party Conduct and Government Integrity Education, is a cluster of low-slung buildings.

The resort atmosphere lingers inside, say those who have entered, with marble-floored corridors, leather sofas and an atrium decorated with flowers. The kitchen serves up 15-dish lunches, and wooden room doors open with swipe cards.

"It's kind of like a four- or five-star hotel," says Jean Zou, a Chinese-born Canadian who wishes she had never set foot there. "You would never know there is something else happening in that building."

A video framegrab shows the facility in Wuhu.

Hidden inside lies a shadowy corner of modern China. Here and in countless other unassuming structures across the country are where the top political leadership of the world's second-largest economy has waged a war on corruption. And like the anti-corruption campaign itself, the facade of administrative normalcy conceals a harsh reality: a justice system heavily reliant on interrogation tactics that in many countries would be considered torture, conducted in covert locations.

Members of the Communist Party accused of graft routinely disappear into buildings like those behind the grey wall after being placed under a form of extralegal custody called shuanggui. When they eventually emerge – sometimes after weeks, sometimes not for a year – they have prepared confessions of wrongdoing, for which they are then tried in court. Sentences include lengthy jail time, asset seizures and orders to repay large sums of money.

A fearsome organ of internal discipline, shuanggui (pronounced shwung-gwaye) has roots in both imperial Chinese practices and Soviet institutions of party control. Local lawyers call it a form of "family rule" for Communist members. Critics liken it to mob justice, a system with little oversight, prone to abuse, even as it has taken on a central role in a sweeping anti-graft effort that has been a hallmark of Xi Jinping's presidency. Nearly 1.2 million people have been punished in the past four years, some 410,000 in the last year alone.

This is the story of one those men and his family, whose account – told to The Globe and Mail and corroborated through lawyers, relatives, court and employment documents, and legal experts – reveals the inner workings of how China is prosecuting corruption.

It is a system that's also important to Canada, as it considers an extradition treaty to send back those whom China accuses of corruption. Sometimes, evidence against accused fugitives is extracted from places like the Wuhu Centre for Party Conduct and Government Integrity Education, which, to anyone strolling through, is "well-decorated and beautiful," Ms. Zou says. "It looks very nice. But it is the worst place in the world."

What is ‘shuanggui’, and why did it send Wilson Wang to prison?

A windowless chamber with padded walls

On April 10, 2015, Wilson Wang disappeared. For days, Ms. Zou did not know where her husband, a successful executive at a state-run tobacco firm, had gone. Finally, she was told that he was in the custody of China's anti-corruption investigators, under investigation for taking bribes.

But it was only much later that she learned he had been taken to that complex in Wuhu and locked inside a windowless chamber, its walls and even its toilet padded to prevent suicide.

For weeks, shifts of Communist Party internal-discipline workers subjected him to questions, insults and an array of tactics designed to create intense psychological pressure. They wanted a confession.

For days on end – it was never clear to him how long, since he could not discern day from night – they prevented Mr. Wang from sleeping. Sometimes when he closed his eyes, interrogators would make so much noise that he could not drift off. Other times, they blinded him with bright lights and, when he said he was too tired to go on, blasted him with frigid gusts from an air conditioner.

One day, he was forced to sit for 20 hours on a tiny stool that left him with weeping sores.

He could not speak with a lawyer and was permitted to speak with family only when ordered to beg them to send money – unaware that those payments would later be used as evidence of his guilt.

Alone and desperate, Mr. Wang sought to kill himself by biting through the artery in his wrist. He was stopped by members of the team of dozens keeping constant watch over him. Some were doctors, tasked to ensure he was kept alive. Though he was fed regularly, on some days each meal consisted of only a single spoonful of salty vegetables.

It was clear from the beginning that he had only one certain route out. He would have to admit that he was corrupt, that he had used his position as a senior factory manager to line his own pockets.

"They said if he did not confess, they would send him to the crematorium," said Ms. Zou, an engineer by training, who has now spent nearly two years as her husband's most persistent advocate.

Jean Zou: ‘I love this country. I love China. I don’t want China to be this bad.’ NATHAN VANDERKLIPPE/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

In 54 days, Mr. Wang lost roughly 40 pounds.

Finally, he told his interrogators what they wanted to hear. Then he confessed again, this time to the procuratorate, the Chinese office of investigation and prosecution, which would use his words as evidence in court.

In the eyes of the Chinese state, everything he had just endured ceased to exist – the very building where he was questioned reduced to an apparition. It was as if he had not been detained or interrogated. He and his lawyers could not so much as mention the name of the shuanggui system that had held him captive for nearly two months.

For the procurators seeking to convict Mr. Wang, all that remained of his ordeal was the account he had given them. His signature on the confession had, at a stroke, sanctified the weeks it took to produce an account of his wrongdoing, one he quickly recanted as coerced. The judge wasn't interested in his arguments, and sentenced him to six years in prison. He was fined $7,600 and ordered to return a gold bar, one his family says he never owned.

The shuanggui system had claimed another success from the shadows.

Wilson Wang (second from left in the back row, indicated with an arrow) was detained, interrogated and tortured in China after being sentenced for bribery. This photo from 2009 – at a gathering in Romania with future Chinese president Xi Jinping, shown in the middle of the front row – contradicts key testimony in the case against him, his family and lawyers say.

'No basis in Chinese law'

By most readings of China's legal documents, the shuanggui system is illegal. It is not administered by police, and the evidence it uncovers is not directly introduced in court. It "has no basis in Chinese law," the non-profit Human Rights Watch concluded in Special Measures, a lengthy report on the system last year. "It is effectively a form of solitary confinement in unofficial and unmarked facilities for an indefinite period of time."

Stung by criticism inside and outside its borders, China has also moved to curb the use of physical violence inside the system. However, the interrogation tactics used against Mr. Wang and a series of others whose family members spoke with The Globe and Mail – including a medical doctor who was once hired to work inside the system – show that it is a campaign that continues to rely on mistreatment and psychological torment.

The secrecy that surrounds anti-corruption in China makes it impossible to independently verify each element of Mr.Wang's account. The Globe was not even able to send questions to the central anti-corruption commission, which requires a telephone discussion before it will accept a faxed query. No one at the commission answered that phone, despite repeated attempts over a number of days.

Nonetheless, Mr. Wang's experience hews closely to other accounts reported in Western media, by human-rights groups and, in some cases, by officials themselves.

In recent years, people caught up in the shuanggui system have died. Others have penned shocking accounts of their experiences.

One of those began to circulate on the Chinese Internet in late 2014. It was written by Wang Yuming, who had worked in a construction management office before shuanggui investigators took him away, accusing him of corruption. In a personal report entitled 44 Days in Hell, he recounts being burned by cigarettes and whipped with his own belt. So much of his hair was pulled that it lay in bunches on the ground. When interrogators grew tired of inflicting pain, they ordered him to slap himself while repeatedly saying, "I'm guilty. I confess." Kept from sleep for seven days, he began to hallucinate. "He saw dead people all over the floor," said his wife, Wu Fenghua. "He had mentally collapsed."

An excerpt from ‘44 Days in Hell’ by Wang Yuming reads: ‘I’m too tired. I couldn't stop leaning against the wall. Some of them discovered and blamed me. When it kept happening, they slapped my face. It wasn’t enough for them to slap me with their hands, but they forced me to slap myself, too. Afterward, someone ordered me to slap myself with a slipper. In the beginning, when I did not co-operate with them, they beat me worse. The one person on the same shift as Cao [one of the interrogators] beat me a lot. Once, when he slapped my face, my mouth started bleeding inside. They asked me to confess, but I couldn’t. Then they tortured me.’

Another passage from the letter reads: ‘When the Black Teeth [one of the interrogators] shift interrogated me, he used a cigarette to burn the back of my hand and leave blisters on it. For 24 hours a day, I was either standing, squatting or kneeling down on the ground, except for the three meals when I was allowed to sit on the interrogation chair and eat. Even going to the toilet was up to their wishes. When I was thirsty and received a cup of water, I was also ordered to drink while squatting.’

Chinese leadership has acknowledged problems, and has sought to curtail the worst excesses by ordering a halt to physical violence against detainees and punishing nearly 8,000 graft-busters themselves for corruption.

In January, a Chinese documentary series included an account of one provincial anti-corruption head who said he had accepted more than $25-million in bribes and gifts. Airing that account was among the steps China has made to show it is supervising the system.

Ms. Zou wants to do more. After nearly two years of enduring a system that is at once enormously powerful and carefully hidden, she is now fighting back.

She has amassed a trove of documentation showing the horrors and absurdities of a system that has devoted few concerns to either human or legal rights as it pursues corruption convictions. She has pored over hours of videotape, and hired some of the country's best legal scholars to highlight holes in the evidence marshalled against Mr. Wang.

Her legal team has gone so far as to demand that President Xi stand as a witness. With no history of activism, Ms. Zou has been warned that her willingness to challenge powerful authorities has endangered her safety. She has persisted, in hopes of freeing her husband. A small crowd of human-rights lawyers – among the few hundred that remain in China after a crackdown that has placed many behind bars – has followed the case closely, curious whether it could represent a challenge to a system that has become a central pillar of repressive tactics used under Mr. Xi.

Upending a system so central to the aims of party leadership will not be easy, although countries like Canada may have a role in pushing China for change, amid talks on extraditing graft suspects.

For Ms. Zou, the goal is more than merely freeing her husband.

"I love this country. I love China," she said. "I don't want China to be this bad."

Ms. Zou warned her husband not to join the Communist Party, but like most ambitious workers of his era, he saw membership as a ticket to advancement.

Five properties in China, and another in Canada

Jean Zou and Wilson Wang never pretended to be poor.

"My income and my husband's income were always at the top in the city," Ms. Zou said. "Not number one. But tier one."

It was success that eventually placed a target on their backs. As they accumulated wealth and property, their lifestyle increasingly began to resemble that of the "naked officials" that, in China, have come to define corruption: They were an influential couple with one foot in China and another in Canada, with a need for money to buy property in British Columbia's pricey Lower Mainland and an Ivy League education for their daughter.

They began, like many in China's modern middle-class, as workers in a government-run system.

Mr. Wang graduated from university with a degree in engineering, and, in 1982, immediately joined Wuhu Cigarette Factory, a state-run company and one of the largest employers in Wuhu, a city once famous as a rice-trading crossroads on the shores of the Yangtze River.

Jean Zou drives past the cigarette factory where her husband worked.

The place he worked occupied a central role in Wuhu, both as a major employer and geographically, with a centrally located main factory surrounded by apartments and townhouses it built for workers. Even today, in the midst of a modern city that has grown up around it, the factory scents the air with tobacco.

Mr. Wang and Ms. Zou met in high school, he the studious hard worker, she outgoing and personable. His parents had both been leaders when they were young; his father worked as a deputy factory director, and his mother became the first leader of a local county following the Communist Revolution. She was the daughter of an educated family, her parents both professors, her brother educated at Carnegie Mellon on a full scholarship at a time when China remained deeply insular.

Ms. Zou obtained a master's degree in civil engineering and taught at a local university while Mr. Wang built his career at the cigarette factory. He surrounded himself with books, mainly about management, and joined the Communist Party.

It was a point of conflict. Ms. Zou had grown up with professor parents who saw colleagues persecuted during the Cultural Revolution. Her father was publicly humiliated as a counterrevolutionary and banished to the countryside.

Getting too close to the party, she warned, could be dangerous.

"I told him, don't join," she said. But like most ambitious workers of his era, he saw membership as a ticket to advancement.

He was right.

So, years later, was she.

As Mr. Wang rose in the ranks, his work allowed the couple to accumulate property and wealth. Like many Chinese state-owned companies, the cigarette-maker built worker accommodations and then sold them off to employees for cheap. Mr. Wang and Ms. Zou bought when they could, securing one apartment for less than the equivalent of $5,000. They eventually accumulated five properties in China, and another in Canada.

In 1990, they gave birth to a daughter, Felicia.

Ms. Zou and her daughter, Felicia, who went to study at Harvard for a year.

But Ms. Zou wanted out of China. Knowing what happened to her parents during the Cultural Revolution had left her with a permanent sense of unease. "My parents suffered. That's why I moved to Canada. I did not want my daughter to have the same experience," she said.

With her education and engineering background, she qualified as a skilled immigrant. In 2000, Ms. Zou and her daughter left for Canada.

Mr. Wang never joined them. By the time the immigration paperwork was ready, he had won a major promotion at work, rising to vice factory manager. So he stayed in China, where he became general manager of the local factory, a high-profile executive job that came with perks such as a company car. A few years later, he was dispatched to Romania – to work for the cigarette company – with all the perks of an overseas position. His annual income exceeded 500,000 yuan, nearly six figures in Canadian dollars – a princely wage in China. The family acquired a white BMW 1 Series.

Felicia attended the University of Toronto before moving to Harvard, where a year of graduate studies cost about $150,000.

'No normal person in their right mind would risk it'

But what might look to some like a narrative of success, in China made Mr. Wang's family almost the perfect image of a corrupt family. Some citizens remain in China while their families move abroad, an arrangement that affords the opportunity to earn, enjoy and hide the proceeds of dirty money. The practice has grown so common that such "naked officials" – so named because they are no longer surrounded by family or most of their assets – have been specifically targeted by Chinese graft-busters; in a single bust in 2014, 1,000 such officials were told they could either bring back their families or face demotion and, in some cases, dismissal.

"Naked officials are not necessarily corrupt, but they are just one step away," Xiao Bin, a professor with the School of Government at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, told state media at the time of the 2014 bust. "These people are civil servants paid by taxpayers, but it seems that they are ready to flee for a reunion with their families abroad any time. This is intolerable in any country."

To anyone casually acquainted with Ms. Zou and her family, they fit the naked-official mould. The courts agreed, a conclusion that would not be difficult to believe in a country where corruption is endemic.

But the evidence the court relied upon came, first, from the shuanggui system. And while its harsh methods may often succeed in extracting confessions, they also cast doubt on its ability to properly assess guilt.

The family argues that Mr. Wang is clean and, as proof, holds up the exculpatory evidence that, they say, the courts glossed over.

"It's impossible" that Mr. Wang took bribes, his sister, Wang Qin, said in an interview. Living alone in China, he would often come to her place for dinner. "He had only one demand, which was that we needed soup at each meal. It didn't matter which kind. He just likes soup," she said. "He lived such a simple life."

In Canada, a former manager for Ms. Zou said she saw no evidence of an extravagant lifestyle.

Felicia's Harvard schooling lasted only one year, and though it was expensive, a six-figure tuition bill is not out of reach for many middle-class Chinese families who spend lifetimes saving for their children's education.

Then there is Mr. Wang's income.

In an interview, Felicia said, "They accused him of taking about one million yuan in bribes, which is about $200,000. The amount doesn't sound right. How many years of salary is that? Like, three? Would you risk jail for three years of your salary?

"No normal person in their right mind would risk it."

But on the day unknown men took Mr. Wang away, he was suddenly submersed in a system designed not to carefully weigh those counterarguments.

That night, Felicia could not sleep. "I knew this was not good. We know how the Communists work. If you have read any stories about Soviet Russia, it's the same kind of stuff," she said. "If this was a just system, you wouldn't be taking away someone without giving any reason, any evidence. And you wouldn't need to hold them in a facility where they're not allowed to see anybody – not even lawyers – for up to a year to gather evidence."

The facility in Wuhu where Mr. Wang was detained. The shuanggui system was once hidden in rented houses and hidden locations, but has now stepped into the open.

A tradition of detention

In a country with thousands of years of history, the ideas behind shuanggui are not new. "There is historical evidence pointing to how in imperial China, corrupt officials could be 'detained' and investigated," says Flora Sapio, a scholar who studies Chinese law.

China's Communist Party also has a long tradition of detaining people for the purposes of internal party discipline. The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection was formed in 1949, the year the party took control of China.

But the sprawling modern shuanggui system was born, researchers say, of fear. When Communist rule began to fracture in deeply corrupt Soviet Russia, Chinese leaders wanted to ensure they would not meet the same fate. What was required, Chinese scholars have written, were "special measures" to root out the corruption flourishing in the late 1980s, during the lucrative period of reform and opening up.

In 1990, new rules allowed authorities to detain civil servants at a "designated location at a designated time" to answer questions. That wording would come to be known as shuanggui, a term introduced to the lexicon in 1994 that means "double designation."

Four years later, China specifically prohibited the use of physical violence, insults and tools by shuanggui interrogators. In the late 1990s, shuanggui was even officially outlawed.

But such tactics, and the system itself, persisted as immensely useful tools to prosecute corruption, particularly in recent years under Chinese President Xi Jinping. Since he took office, the number of cases handled by commissions for discipline inspection, who oversee the shuanggui system, have more than doubled. Wang Qishan, the head of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, widely seen as China's second-most powerful man, now stands atop a 500,000-person strong graft-busting empire.

Chinese authorities have formally banned torture in interrogations, and defend their justice system as operating by the book. Only this week, a foreign-ministry spokesperson said in China, "Everyone stands equal in front of the law."

But even China's own police have acknowledged using torture to secure confessions. And if shuanggui operates outside the law, how far will its interrogators go?

It was a question one man, a medical doctor also surnamed Wang, but unrelated to Wilson Wang, had long wanted to answer.

In 2009, his own brother had been hauled in for investigation, accused of taking part in a bribery scheme. Interrogators soaked cigarettes and stuffed them into his nose. In 20 days, they allowed him only a single night's proper rest – and that, only after he attempted suicide by biting his tongue, severing a third of it.

"He couldn't bear the torture any more," said Dr. Wang, a physician who asked that his first name not be used because he has been threatened with violence for criticizing the system.

So when Dr. Wang received a notice that he had been randomly selected to work a medical shift at the office of a local discipline-inspection unit in late 2015, he did not hesitate. For three months, he and another doctor would be tasked with overseeing the health conditions of party members under shuanggui investigation.

Before he began his first shift, he received a set of strict instructions. He could ask detainees about their health but was strictly forbidden from broaching any other topic.

"Their requirement for us doctors was to keep them safe. That meant, don't let them die," said Dr. Wang. "A dead person would create big problems. Someone who is only injured doesn't matter."

Every morning, Dr. Wang checked on the detainees. He had, at most, a few minutes with each. Some had high blood pressure or diabetes, and he prescribed medicine – although it was rarely administered properly, he said.

One septuagenarian man whose treatment he oversaw suffered from festering sores after being forced to sit in one position for too long. Proper treatment required changing his dressing every day, applying a paste to the wound, and then covering it with gauze. But an official at the detention centre ordered Dr. Wang to skip the gauze. Instead, the detainee was made to wear his pants directly over the paste, which then stuck to the fabric. Every time the man stood up, his pants painfully pulled at the sore.

"The wound could barely heal," Dr. Wang said. "It made for a long and slow form of torture."

When his morning rounds were complete, his task was to wait in case of an emergency. It was a chance to get acquainted with the facility staff, a mix of university political-science and law graduates serving alongside retired military officers and officials seconded from other local government offices.

They were organized in four daily shifts, he said, which enabled them to maintain pressure on suspects day and night. Sleep deprivation was their favoured tactic, an abuse that has been labelled "mental torture" by the U.S. military and "inhuman treatment" by the European Court.

China's own Supreme Court has defined as torture any "use of physical punishment, covert physical punishment or use of other methods that cause severe physical or psychological pain or suffering, compelling a defendant to confess against his will."

"Their aim was to break your spirit," Dr. Wang said.

After 72 sleepless hours, a person begins to lose command of their faculties. "They do it so a person will lose control and follow their inducements," he said. "It's like hypnotism. A person will write whatever they are told to, and sign it."

Condemnation for such conduct

Many of the tactics Dr. Wang witnessed in the shuanggui system have also been used by numerous Western governments, including the U.K. in Northern Ireland; Israel with Palestinian detainees; and the United States in Guantanamo.

Each of those countries, however, has come under heavy condemnation for its conduct, from the United Nations and human-rights groups.

Last fall, Juan E. Méndez, UN special rapporteur on torture, called for new guidelines to ensure no one is subjected to such treatment, which he criticized as, among other things, ineffective.

"Scientific data and irrefutable evidence from the criminal-justice system demonstrate that coercive methods of questioning, even when not amounting to torture, produce unreliable information and false confessions, and are indeed counterproductive for public safety," Mr. Méndez said in a public statement.

"Moreover, torture, ill-treatment, and coercion have devastating long-term consequences on individuals, institutions, and society as a whole," he added. "Ultimately, torture only breeds more crime by fuelling hatred and a desire for vengeance."

In the past few months, Chinese authorities have proposed a raft of further changes to their anti-corruption efforts. Shuanggui investigators will be encouraged to videotape confessions and limit interrogations to 90 days. New rules obligate interrogators to maintain proper health and diet for those under questioning, and bar them from employing insults or physical punishment.

President Xi has urged graft investigators to keep away "the darkness beneath the light," while Wang Qishan, the head of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, has pledged to "provide a good answer to the question of who will supervise the CCDI, and will not betray the Party's trust or the people's expectations." The party is also creating a broad-based new National Supervisory Commission that will expand the reach of discipline inspection, but the new rules place "more demands on the person doing the examination than the target of the investigation. This is major progress," Li Yongzhong, deputy president of the China Academy of Discipline Inspection and Supervision, told state media.

It's not clear what this means for the future of shuanggui.

"I see the likelihood that the shuanggui system will be brought to a greater compliance with the political line of the current leadership," said Prof. Sapio. That could mean nudging it out of the shadows, using "the law as a tool which can place meaningful limitations on power."

Others aren't convinced. Corruption can be extraordinarily difficult to prove using normal standards of evidence. High-pressure shuanggui interrogations, by contrast, offer "a way to relatively quickly get what they want," said Zhu Jiangnan, a University of Hong Kong scholar who has studied Chinese anti-corruption efforts for more than a decade.

"They will still keep using it," she said. "There's no incentive to change."

China's corruption problem

There is one aspect of China's corruption crackdown on which critics and supporters agree: Beijing has a major graft problem on its hands. China scores a 40 on Transparency International's corruption-perception index, where 100 is considered very clean, and zero highly corrupt. That puts it in 79th place among countries, behind Brazil, Tunisia and Cuba.

The group's Corruption Perceptions Index suggests "a serious problem with corruption" in China.

In the shuanggui system, those "being tortured oftentimes are not the poster children," said Margaret Lewis, an expert on the Chinese legal system at Seton Hall University School of Law, in Newark, N.J.

But, she said, "it's the hard cases that really test whether we stand by" values "that every human being should be free from torture and other cruel and degrading punishment."

That's a particularly important question for Ottawa as it contemplates an extradition treaty with China.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, shakes hands with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the G20 summit in Hangzhou, China, on Sept. 24, 2016. The shuanggui system has gained new life under Mr. Xi’s anti-corruption initiatives. ADRIAN WYLD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

As a signatory to the UN Convention Against Torture, Canada has an obligation not to return people to a country where there is a likelihood they will be tortured. How closely does Canada want to align itself with a system where the treatment of people like Mr. Wang is routine?

Ottawa is unlikely to agree to any deal that does not contain specific provisions against the mistreatment of returned suspects. But the hidden nature of shuanggui investigations raises questions about whether evidence produced by mistreatment could be used against people in Canada.

Some, too, argue that an extradition treaty could prove helpful in pushing for improvements to the Chinese system. Ottawa could insist on eschewing any case based on evidence with roots in shuanggui, said Phil Calvert, a retired Canadian diplomat with extensive experience in China. That "could exclude some people the Chinese government most wants extradited; that would send a message into the system. And if other countries echo this message, then that could have a cumulative effect."

For now, it's not clear how seriously the Trudeau government intends to pursue an extradition deal with China. After a meeting last fall in which Canada agreed to start talks toward such an agreement, no further discussions have been scheduled, government sources say.

China's new ambassador to Canada, Lu Shaye, said in an interview with The Globe this week that human-rights questions should not influence broader talks on trade between the two countries. He also urged greater co-operation "in judicial and law enforcement," in particular on corruption.

But those who have peered into China's own anti-corruption enforcement warn against approaching it too closely.

Shuanggui exists in "the darkness under the candelabra," Dr. Wang says. "They have power in their hands. And with no oversight, they can do whatever they want."

Jean Zou holds a protest banner on a street in Wuhu, China, near where her husband was detained. It reads, in part: ‘Confession under torture after more than 50 days in detention.’

Jean Zou is called in

On May 3, 2015, a stranger phoned Jean Zou. Three frantic weeks had passed since her husband was taken away. The stranger promised to shed light on the mystery.

"Come over here," he said. "We will tell you what happened with your husband."

Two days later, she walked into the buildings behind the signs for the Wuhu Centre for Party Conduct and Government Integrity Education. The people inside were friendly and smiling. They first asked her to remove her jewellery and change her clothes, saying it was their policy to have everyone dress in a grey, long-sleeved shirt and pants.

It was prison garb, and the video of her wearing it would be played for her husband without sound to falsely persuade him that his wife, too, had been arrested for his supposed crimes – and that his daughter was next.

But Ms. Zou did not know that. "I thought, my husband is in their hands. Better to co-operate."

Next, ominously, a doctor came to see her, checking her blood pressure and drawing blood.

"There were two men and a lady. As soon as all of these things were done, the two men's faces changed completely," Ms. Zou recalled. They began to scream: "Sit down and sit straight! You cannot relax!"

The yelling was so loud and so uninterrupted that it was barely human communication; it was animal intimidation that continued for hours. They swore and called her names. They told her she was worthless.

Ms. Zou had become a Canadian citizen in 2005. That didn't matter to her interrogators.

"They didn't ask me questions. They just yelled," she said. "I was crying because I was afraid. I have never had anything like that before in my entire life. No person has ever treated me like a dog before."

When she collapsed, they called a doctor to check on her, saying that if she did not get back up they would draw more blood with an extra-large needle. When she closed her eyes, they directed intensely bright lights at her. "Not opening your eyes means you cannot see clearly," they told her. "That's why we are shining this light at your eyes. It gives you much more light to see."

The interrogation began at 9 a.m. and continued through shifts of questioners. At dinnertime, another man entered the room who introduced himself as the leader of the local Commission for Discipline Inspection. Confess, he told Ms. Zou, or face arrest. "We do not need to follow the rules," he said. "We can arrest anyone at any time."

They let her go at 9 p.m., telling her she must return the following day. She raced to get her daughter out of the country that day instead. "I just came back from where the devils are," she told Felicia.

But as they drove to the airport, Ms. Zou's phone rang. Local authorities, she was told, had already signed a document that would bar Felicia, a Canadian citizen, from leaving China. They would enact the ban if Ms. Zou was not at their office by 2 p.m.

Being locked in China "would ruin my daughter's whole life," said Ms. Zou, who promised to come in the next day.

The delay tactic worked. By the time she returned for another day of interrogation, Felicia was out of China. (She now works in New York City.) And Ms. Zou refused to admit her husband's guilt.

Interrogators had more success with Wilson Wang's brother-in-law, Wang Kui, who eventually agreed that he had seen Wilson accept a bribe. Interrogators had told him that his accusation would cause them to go easy on Wilson.

But the experience shattered Wang Kui. After four days of 15-hour interrogations, he was set free, only to get into three different traffic accidents in a single day. A doctor diagnosed him with schizophrenia.

The family, too, was convulsed. On May 29, nearly two months after Wilson Wang disappeared, he called his sister, Wang Qin, from inside the Commission for Discipline Inspection (Ms. Zou's phone had mysteriously stopped working after he was detained, so Wilson no longer knew his wife's number).

"I remember clearly what he said to me: 'I need to pay 1.2-million [yuan], and I need your help to do it,'" said Ms. Wang.

It was the equivalent of $227,000. It had to be done that day. "His tone was like he couldn't stay a minute longer inside there," Ms. Wang said.

Ms. Zou argued vociferously against making the payment: It would look like an admission of guilt. She went so far as to make a threat. "I said, 'If anyone does it, I will kill the family. I will kill you all, including the kids.'"

The family was being torn apart.

That afternoon, when Ms. Zou left to get legal advice, her husband called his sister again. He wanted to know why the money had not arrived. "He sounded very sad. I want to cry, just telling you about it," Ms. Wang said.

The family had heard about local dignitaries who died in shuanggui.

"If we refused to pay, how would he be able to leave that place? Would he be destroyed by ceaseless torture?" Ms. Wang said.

"It was the person I wanted. What use is money to me?"

They quickly secured a high-interest loan, which cost them $4,550 in interest alone every month. Nearly two years later, more than half of the principal remains unpaid.

And Mr. Wang remains behind bars. He first confessed, Ms. Zou was told, when interrogators showed him the order they had prepared to bar his daughter from leaving China. On Aug. 15, 2016, a judge declared him guilty.

The law courts building in Wuhu. Here, an appeal hearing for Wilson Wang was abruptly cancelled as his lawyer sought to call Chinese President Xi Jinping as a witness.

'How can they treat the law like a joke?'

On a chilly day in December, a small crowd gathers on the sidewalk outside the law-courts building in Wuhu. Former classmates, relatives and other lawyers have come to attend an appeal trial for Wilson Wang.

Minutes before the trial is scheduled to begin, a pair of uniformed court officers walk out. The trial, they say, has been delayed. Mr. Wang's sister, Wang Qin, is furious. "How," she asks, "can they treat the law like a joke?"

Inside, the judge who has just postponed the trial is asking Mr. Wang's lawyer a similar question. Why, the judge wants to know, has he called the Chinese president as a witness?

Because, replies Gan Weidong, the lawyer, Mr. Xi can personally corroborate his client's alibi.

There is sound legal reason for the request.

But the impossibility that it will succeed only serves to underscore the absurdity of some of the evidence assembled against Mr. Wang – one element of which could be contradicted by the Chinese president himself.

A year and a half earlier, when Mr. Wang had first emerged from his 54-day shuanggui interrogation, he was immediately taken to the office of a local procuratorate. He was taken into another room, where for 23 hours and 35 minutes he issued a detailed videotaped confession to the procurators, finishing minutes before the 24-hour threshold that in China legally constitutes "exhaustive interrogation."

What he said in that time became the foundation of the case against him, buttressed by additional hours of testimony that procurators amassed from others. Chinese courts rely heavily on such evidence.

But Mr. Wang was not allowed to meet his lawyer until two months after he made that confession. And the words he uttered at the time, Mr. Gan said, were not his own.

"It's very simple. The Commission for Discipline Inspection writes the script," Mr. Gan said. "The suspect and witnesses must recite the script well first, and then act it out when they are recorded" by the procurator.

That script can fall apart on closer inspection.

Most prominent among the witnesses against Mr. Wang was Ji Ruinan, a businessman who fixed machinery at the cigarette company. He admitted to giving Mr. Wang $87,000 in bribes and providing $44,000 in free home renovations in order to secure contracts at the factory.

Videotaped testimony shows Ji Ruinan being questioned by a prosecutor.

The procuratorate refused to provide any of the videotaped testimony to Mr. Wang's legal team. But they managed to smuggle out a copy, and, when they began to scrutinize it, started to spot irregularities.

For example, Mr. Ji said he had given Mr. Wang multiple bribes, which he had delivered in person in October, 2009.

That was problematic. Mr. Wang was, at the time, far from China, working in Romania. He had proof – border records that he had flown out of the country and, most compelling of all, a photo. It showed him in a group behind Mr. Xi, who in October, 2009, came to Romania on a tour through Eastern Europe.

On another tape, procurators take a break from questioning Mr. Ji. He begins to reflect about a contract he had wanted at the cigarette factory. "I didn't get it in the end, because I didn't spend money," he says. Mr. Ji then adds, "What I said before, in the investigation, I lied."

The prosecutor replies: "I know that some of what you said before was not true. You are clear, and we are clear, too. But we do not blame you. It's all very normal."

It appears to be an admission that Mr. Ji did not bribe Mr. Wang, and has instead been concocting evidence – a damning find, and one that supported Mr. Wang's later claim, in court, that all of Mr. Ji's evidence against him was fabricated.

A group of legal scholars who reviewed it agreed.

"Mr. Ji's testimony has many contradictory and suspicious elements, for which there is no reasonable explanation," wrote the three professors of criminal law at Peking University and Renmin University.

They recommended it be discarded entirely – and then went on to question the foundations of the case against Mr. Wang.

There are "major issues of procedure and evidence," they said.

It was only after Mr. Wang went to trial and was found guilty that the procurator's office sent his lawyers a copy of the tapes. In their copy, the references to lying, and Mr. Ji's admission that "I didn't spend money" no longer appear.

Mr. Wang’s wife, Jean Zou, left, and sister Wang Qin hold the photo they say challenges the case against Mr. Wang. One witness testified that he gave Mr. Wang a bribe in person in October, 2009. But he wasn’t in China then; he was in Romania, where the photo was taken.

Accused of being 'suspicious'

In mid-March, Jean Zou received two remarkable sheets of paper from the Wuhu City Intermediate People's Court. They were signed and stamped by a judge, concerning her husband. "The facts of the former judgment were found to be unclear, and the evidence was found to be insufficient," they declared. The judge ordered a retrial.

In a country with a conviction rate over 99.9 per cent, it was a surprising indictment of the quality of proof produced by the shuanggui investigation against Mr. Wang.

But Mr. Wang remains in detention, without a date for a new trial. And his supporters remain at a deep disadvantage in trying to win his freedom.

When Ms. Zou asked for documents from the cigarette factory that could help to buttress his case, the general manager refused to provide them. "He is so scared of the Wuhu Commission for Discipline Inspection," Ms. Zou said.

In court, Mr. Wang's lawyers cannot so much as mention the shuanggui system or its role in coercing the confessions that constitute the bedrock of the case against him.

"If I insist on criticizing shuanggui, it's likely they will suddenly take me out of the courtroom," said Mr. Gan.

Ms. Zou, too, has been warned that powerful local interests are gearing up to defeat her, perhaps by attacking her lawyer. Shortly after that warning, police ordered Mr. Gan in for questioning, saying they wanted information on an Airbnb-style home where he had stayed.

Then, shortly after local media reported on Mr. Wang's ordeal in February, an unsigned article appeared on an obscure news website. It appeared to be an effort by authorities to anonymously counter her story.

The judicial process against Mr. Wang may have been imperfect, it said. But none of that can explain how a man "who owns five houses could be a clean official." It is "suspicious," the article continued, that anyone would offer a sympathetic account of a person it called thoroughly corrupt. Besides, it asked "how many people would choose to believe" that Ms. Zou could gain Canadian citizenship on her own – an insinuation that it was attained through bribery.

Ms. Zou then received a series of calls from friends and family warning her to be careful, saying her personal safety could be at risk and that authorities have considered arresting her, too, on graft charges.

"They want to silence me," she said.

A system imbued with extraordinary power

To critics outside China, the solution to shuanggui is simple: Eliminate it, and prosecute corruption using police and the courts.

"If Xi Jinping and Wang Qishan are going to continue to say in public that China is a country governed by the rule of law, then they are obliged today to abolish shuanggui," said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. "And if they have credible evidence of corruption, they can send it through the court system they think is working so well."

But inside the country, the overwhelming weight of the system seems impossible to defeat. Instead, people like Dr. Wang have engaged in a series of tiny skirmishes, hoping to fight back in whatever way they can. He has identified 20 officials he believes were involved with his brother's case, and has sent anonymous letters accusing each of them of corruption. He hopes someone will take his accusations seriously, and perhaps investigate.

It's risky, though, because he is confronting a system imbued with extraordinary power.

In Dr. Wang's office, only two men share the surname Wang. Late last year, three men attacked the second Dr. Wang, fracturing his nose. Nobody could understand why, until a friend surmised that the men had made a mistake.

"They came for me. This was a warning," said Dr. Wang. He believes his letters fell into the hands of those he has sought to take down.

"The people I reported are very powerful. It would be very easy for them to kill me, like killing an ant with your fingers."

With reporting by Yu Mei

Nathan VanderKlippe is The Globe and Mail's correspondent in Beijing.