Letter from Beijing — Part Three


[Editor’s Note: Chapters One and Two of this book, Back From The Dead: A Landmark Ruling of Wrongful Conviction in China, can be found here and here. Generously shared in these pages by the author, it is the true story of China’s parallel to the O.J. Simpson murder case, which occurred around the same time. Here is Chapter Three.]


Four Confessions

Once the special investigation team heard Mrs Zhang’s story, they
felt Xianglin to be worthy of suspicion, and decided to approach him
immediately. From what they had gathered, the investigators
predicted Xianglin was going to be difficult to handle.

Later that evening two members of the special investigation team,
He Liang and Pan Jun, rushed to Madian Village. With the support
of the local police they tracked down She Xianglin and took him to a
local hotel. In a room there, they told him that his wife had been
found dead and that someone had murdered her. When he heard
this, he appeared to be very upset and demanded to see his wife’s
body. The investigators refused, saying it would be too far to travel.
They asked him to tell them about the circumstances surrounding
Aiqing’s disappearance.

Xianglin spoke of his wife’s mental state at the time, and of their
quarrel. When the investigators asked about their marriage, he first
said that things had been fine; after further questioning, he admitted
that they had fought often. When asked if there had been another
woman, Xianglin flatly denied it, but then said he had ‘been in
contact’ with a young woman in Madian. He insisted that once
Aiqing had found out about the other relationship, he had cut off
contact with the woman.

Suddenly the investigators changed tack: ‘Be honest! Just tell us
how you killed Aiqing!’

Xianglin became flustered, but insisted that he hadn’t killed anyone,
and that Aiqing really had just left the house of her own accord.
Repeatedly he asked to see the body, saying that he didn’t believe it
was really Aiqing who had died. The investigators made no
acknowledgement of the request, and kept asking him to be honest
and confess. They reminded Xianglin of the well-known Communist
Party saying: ‘Lenient on those who confess, severe on those who

There was no result that night. The next morning, the special
investigation team took She Xianglin back to Jingshan County Public
Security Bureau to meet with the crime squad.

The special investigation team held a meeting about the case,
chaired by Lu Cheng, the head of the crime squad. First, the forensic
investigators discussed the conclusions they had drawn from the
autopsy. Based on the algae found in her stomach, they determined
that Zhang Aiqing had been alive when she entered the water;
officially, it could be classified as death by drowning. Next, He Liang
discussed the process of detaining and interrogating She Xianglin.
He suggested that Xianglin’s description of his wife’s departure was
concrete and definite, and sounded like the truth, although it could
have been a story he had carefully practised. Based on the limited
contact they had had with him the previous night, He Liang believed
that Xianglin was either an honest person or an excellent actor, or
both, an assessment that Pan Jun agreed with. Xianglin seemed to
have a split personality: on the one hand, his expressions of pain
when he was told that his wife had died seemed disingenuous; on
the other, his repeated demands to examine the body seemed
sincere. If Xianglin had been telling the truth then it was most likely
that Zhang Aiqing had been murdered, and possibly raped, by
another person after she had left the house. It didn’t seem likely that
this was a crime committed out of anger or for money.

After a long discussion, the special investigation team came to a
unanimous conclusion: while it was impossible to eliminate
completely the possibility that Zhang Aiqing had been murdered by
someone else after leaving her home, She Xianglin remained the
prime suspect. In the absence of evidence pointing to any other
suspects, he was still the key to solving the case. And because the
victim in this case had been dead for over two months, and since her
body had been submerged under water for some time, it was difficult
to perform the usual crime-scene examination procedures: analysis
of bloodstains, foot and handprints and so on. With such a high-
profile case in the balance, the investigators redoubled their efforts
towards charging the suspect with a crime. The team decided to split
into two groups: the first would handle the interrogation of She
Xianglin and would be headed by He Liang and Pan Jun, together
with two younger officers. As Xianglin had worked as a security
officer for years, it was likely that he would be familiar with police
procedure. If he really had murdered his wife, it would be possible
for him to concoct an elaborate alibi and stick to it. The investigators
were prepared for a long and drawn-out battle. The other group,
which would be headed by Lu Cheng, the head of the criminal squad,
would be comprised of technical criminal investigators and local
policemen. They would go to Hechang Village and conduct an
investigation, interview residents, search She Xianglin’s house and
return to the pond to search for evidence. The search for evidence
needed to be widened: if there was nothing on the banks of the
pond, there might be something in the water itself, or in the
surrounding forest. Given the complexity of the case, Han Hua, the
deputy chief of police, decided not to take the crucial step of
arresting She Xianglin; instead, he would be ‘sheltered for

Being ‘sheltered for investigation’ was a technique first used against
habitual criminals during the Cultural Revolution. In 1975, the State
Council released a notice approving this method, which allowed city-
level police to set up detention locations. [Note 5] In 1980, in order to
standardise the application of ‘shelter for interrogation’, the State
Council released a notice on the incorporation of ‘forced labour’ and
‘shelter for investigation’ into ‘re-education through labour’. The
notice stated:

Where suspects of minor crimes have not revealed their true
names or addresses; where itinerant criminals have
committed minor crimes; in cases of habitual criminals; or
for those members of gangs who need to be restrained in
order to ascertain their crimes, the people involved should
be taken to a place of re-education through labour, where
they can be examined by specialists. [Note 6]

The decision to ‘shelter for investigation’ was made by the local
police. The criteria were broad, allowing for the subject to be
sheltered for up to three months. Many public security bureaus used
‘shelter for investigation’ as a substitute for actual detention in the
initial stages of investigation when the identity of the suspect was
known. (In order for a suspect to be officially detained, the laws of
criminal procedure had to be strictly adhered to. Even with police
approval, the period of detention could not exceed six days, or ten
days in serious cases.) Furthermore, although the Ministry of Public
Security had requested that all local police set up designated
locations where subjects could be ‘sheltered for investigation’, many
public security bureaus still placed those being sheltered in a regular
police guardhouse. [Note 7]

After the decision was made to shelter She Xianglin for
investigation, the local police led the county police down to
Hechang. They first went to the She family home to make inquiries.
She Xianglin’s daughter, aged six, hid behind her grandmother with
a terrified look in her eyes. Xianglin’s older brother asked to see
Aiqing’s body; his request was denied. When Mrs She asked to see
her son, the result was the same. Mrs She confirmed her son’s story,
saying that Aiqing really had just run away from home, that she had
run away twice before, and had to be dragged back by her family
both times. All in all, the investigators found no evidence relating to
the murder in the house, and there was no evidence in the village or
the forest, either. It seemed as if the case could only be resolved in

In order to advance the interrogation, the investigators began to
focus on She Xianglin’s extramarital affair. They attempted to
extract statements from the people involved. Not long after the
woman in question had met with Aiqing, she had left town to find
work, but it turned out that she had returned to Madian late last
year. A few people suggested that Xianglin had gone looking for her
again. The investigators decided to use the affair to exert pressure
on him, and force him to admit that he had been lying. Alternating
between two groups, the investigators interrogated Xianglin for two
days and two nights until his defences finally collapsed. He admitted
that he had been in love with the other woman and had murdered
Zhang Aiqing, who he claimed had become mentally ill. However,
even after extensive questioning, he remained evasive as to the exact
circumstances of the murder.

Throughout the ten-day interrogation period, She Xianglin never
went into any detail about the circumstances of the crime. None of
the investigators were able to ascertain the exact sequence of events.
According to police interrogation transcripts, after admitting his
guilt, Xianglin described four different scenarios and methods of
murder. The fact that he felt compelled to issue four different
statements illustrates the gamesmanship that went on between
police and suspect:

Statement 1 (15 April): On the evening of 20 January 1994, I
took Zhang Aiqing outside, and picked up a wooden stick
outside the door on the way. I took her up the hill near the
Yanmenkou Red Flag gravel factory and beat her to death
with the stick, then I dumped her body in a sewer.

The investigators were not convinced that She Xianglin was being
honest with this statement, and thought he might be using it to work
out if they had found the body or not. In order to break him down,
the investigators used aggressive language to pressure him. One of
them said: ‘Don’t think we don’t know about what you did. I’m
telling you, if you’ve buried the body in the ground, we can dig down
3 feet. If you dump it in the water, we can drain the water. We’ll
drain it dry!’

Statement 2 (17 April): On the evening of 20 January 1994, I
took Zhang Aiqing outside. I saw my good friend Wei playing
billiards outside the veterinarian’s. I got Wei to take Aiqing
to the water pump on the outskirts of the village, and to lock
her up there. Three days later, I went with Wei to the pump,
and we killed Aiqing with a rock. We threw her body into the

The investigators felt this new gambit to be more truthful. If the
water pump had been the murder site, it would explain the mystery
of how the body had been submerged in water for two months and
not discovered by anyone. Also, if Xianglin had an accomplice, it
would be useful in ascertaining the facts of the case and could help
them uncover a new trail of evidence. The police followed this lead,
but found the well to be watched over by a villager who slept in a
room next to the pump at night and unlocked it during the day. Even
if Aiqing and Wei had been the only ones who had gone to the pump
room, it was impossible that no one would have seen her after three
days. Consequently, the investigators believed that She Xianglin was
still being dishonest, and they warned him that they could see
through his clumsy lies. They felt they needed to let Xianglin believe
they already had plenty of other information in order to trip him up.

That same day, good news arrived from the forensic investigators
who had been searching for evidence at the pond. They had fished
from the water a bag made of plastic woven to look like snakeskin —
it had four stones inside and a rope handle made of hemp attached
to the top. The investigators proposed that after She Xianglin had
knocked Zhang Aiqing unconscious, he had used the rope to tie her
up, put the stones in the bag to weigh her down, and pushed her into
the water so that she could not be found. After the body had been in
the water for some time, they surmised that the rope had loosened,
and the decomposing body had become more buoyant, which
enabled it to float to the surface. As the interrogation went on, the
police continued to pressure She Xianglin: ‘Don’t drip-feed us
information. If you make things clear, we can report that your
attitude towards confession is good, and we’ll be lenient on you. We
know all about what you did — every detail. You thought you were
being smart, tying up the body, dumping it in the water and using a
storage bag filled with four stones to weigh it down. Did you really
think we wouldn’t find it?’

Statement 3 (19 April): During the day of 20 January 1994, I
saw Wei by the veterinarian’s and asked him over to my
place in the evening. At 11 p.m., Wei came by, and the two of
us took Zhang Aiqing to the pump room, changed her
clothes, and took her to a mountain valley and beat her to
death with a rock. We used a storage bag with four stones in
it, tied her up and dumped her body in the pond.

By the time Xianglin gave this confession, the investigators had
discovered that Wei could not have participated in the murder. He
had been seriously ill and was at the local hospital undergoing
treatment. The hospital doctors issued a certificate to confirm this.
The investigators came to the conclusion that Xianglin had named a
random man to confuse the situation. They pointed out the gaps in
Xianglin’s statement and continued to add pressure, looking for a
confession that he alone had killed his wife.

Statement 4 (21 April): When Zhang Aiqing was in a
confused state, I dragged her out of bed, took her to an
empty shed outside the village and locked her up. At 2 a.m.,
I took our daughter to my parents’ room and told them that
my wife had run out and that I needed to go and look for
her. After that, I took a torch, some rope and clothes that I
had prepared in advance and went back to the shed. I
changed Aiqing’s clothes, grabbed a storage bag I had
already put in the shed, took her to a pond on the side of the
mountain and hit her on the head with a rock, which
knocked her unconscious. I tied to her the bag with the four
stones in it, and pushed her into the water. The next
afternoon, I put her discarded clothes into the stove at my
house and burned them.

This time, the investigators believed Xianglin’s confession to be
‘objective fact consistent with the case’ and could be used to
reinforce the other evidence, summarised as follows: She Xianglin
was having an affair and therefore intended to eliminate his wife who
had developed a mental illness. After constructing a complicated
scheme and making elaborate preparations, he put this plan into
action. He had not only prepared a bag to use for the corpse, but had
also procured replacement clothes as a red herring for the
investigators. After committing the crime, he had spread false
information everywhere, suggesting that his wife had run away from
home. After being detained, he toyed with the investigators and
evaded interrogation in every possible way.

After obtaining the confession, the investigators still believed that
the evidence needed to be strengthened further, so they decided to
take She Xianglin to identify the exact locations where the crime had
taken place. But ten consecutive days of interrogation had left
Xianglin utterly exhausted. When the police first requested that he
draw a diagram of the route he took, he seemed dazed, and couldn’t
complete the drawing. With ‘assistance’ he was finally able to do so.
On the evening of 21 April, the police took She Xianglin to identify
the relevant locations. The files record the circumstances as follows:

At 8 p.m., Group nine [Note 8] set out from Hechang Village with
She Xianglin and the police to the shed where he had left the
storage bag and locked up Zhang Aiqing. The shed door
faced east and had no lock. Inside was a wooden bed. Group
nine passed through town, went east along a public road for
500 metres and took a dirt road heading to Liichong before
arriving at a fork in the road and continuing to walk for 1
kilometre. The group then arrived at a pond, and She
Xianglin pointed out a spot 30 metres from the bank where
he had killed Zhang.

On 22 April, Jingshan County police declared that the case of She
Xianglin’s deliberate murder of Zhang Aiqing had been fully
investigated, and moved him from ‘sheltered for investigation’ to
criminal detention. The next day, the investigation team requested
the People’s Procurator’s Office in Jingshan County approve
Xianglin’s arrest. [Note 9] The approval was received from the procurator’s
office on 28 April. Soon after, the investigation team used the
relevant files to prepare ‘comprehensive materials’ and a report on
the ‘case-solving process’. These were sent to the pre-trial division of
the police. After examination by the pre-trial division, an ‘opinion on
prosecution’ was prepared. At this point, the process of police
investigation ended, and the files were handed over to the
procurator’s office so the trial could begin. For the smooth and
successful handling of such a major case, the investigation team was
praised for their work at a special meeting. The local newspaper
reported that the police had arrested She Xianglin under suspicion
of the murder of his wife.

Once the procurator’s office received the files, they sent staff to the
police station lockup to process She Xianglin for trial. When he saw
the court officials, Xianglin became excited, repeatedly saying that
he had not murdered anyone and that he had been forced by the
police to give a false confession. The officials promised him that his
case would be properly considered and seriously investigated. Once
the procurator had examined the materials, they telephoned the
criminal squad of the public security bureau and asked about the
circumstances. The criminal squad assured them that investigators
had acted according to the law at all times and had absolutely not
extorted the confession, nor fabricated one. They added that She
Xianglin had definitely done it, and said it was common at the trial
stage for suspects to retract a previous confession.

By now, Mrs She had finally obtained permission to see her son.
Xianglin told her he had not killed anyone, and that Zhang Aiqing
really had just run away from home. Mrs She believed her son, and
believed that if she could find her daughter-in-law she would be able
to save her son. As she left the police station, she found herself filled
with a sudden determination: she would move mountains to bring
Aiqing back!


5 Although the state has relied on this 1975 document
as a justification for its actions, the origins of the
document are unclear. ‘An official document of this
importance should have been published in the State
Council Gazette, but it is not included there. Nor is it
found in such comprehensive compilations as the
Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo Falii Quanshu
(Complete Book of Laws of the People’s Republic of
China)’ Hsia, Tao-Tai and Zeldin, Wendy I.,
‘Sheltering for Examination (Shourong Shencha) in the
Legal System of the People’s Republic of China’, China
Law Report, volu1ne 7, issue 95, 1993.

6 ‘Notification Regarding the Merger of the Two
Measures of Forced Labor and Sheltering for
Examination Into Reeducation and Rehabilitation
Through Labor’, 29 February 1980.

7 After the problems with arbitrary detention came to
light in the 1980s, the Ministry of Public Security
released various notices on the matter: ‘On the Strict
Control of the Use of Shelter and Investigation’ (1985),
and ‘Specific Provisions on the Basis for and Review of
Shelter and Investigation’ (1990). When She Xianglin’s
case was under investigation, lawyers and legal
academics were discussing the abolition of sheltered
investigation. Some called for it to be stopped, as they
believed that it led to abuses of power and was
constantly subject to malpractice. Others argued that it
was an excellent method of dealing with petty
criminals, and called for its retention. In 1996, when
the laws of criminal procedure were reformed,
sheltered investigation was abolished.

8 During the Mao period (1949-76), villagers tended to
be organised into work teams or groups as a means of
organising and monitoring their agricultural work.
Some of these organisations lasted into the 1990s.

9 According to the relevant provisions of Chinese
Criminal Procedure Law, arrest is an enforcement
measure used to deprive suspects of a crime or
defendants in a trial of their personal freedom. It is
decided by the procurator’s office or a court and
implemented by a public security organ. In practice, the
public security organ first detains the suspect of the
crime, and asks the procurator’s office for permission
to arrest later. Therefore, arrest does not actually begin
with the decision to detain, but rather with the approval
of detention. The period of detention after arrest may
include the whole course of the criminal proceedings.


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