Corruption Probes: Life ... At Club Fed

In the countryside outside Beijing, what looks like a luxury guesthouse is rising amid fruit orchards, replete with a fitness center and individual villas. Of course, the construction site also features high walls and security guards--lots of guards. NEWSWEEK has learned that the compound, near the district of Pinggu, is actually going to be a five-star detention facility capable of housing dozens of senior cadres under kid-glove "hotel arrest" while they undergo investigation for wrongdoing. Call it China's equivalent of "Club Fed."

With one key difference. Shanghai's disgraced party secretary Chen Liangyu, who was purged from the Politburo last week, and the hundreds of other cadres caught up in anti-corruption probes across the country have not been officially charged with crimes in the Western sense. Instead, they're being confined and interrogated by the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) Discipline and Inspection Commission. In a press conference last week, commission head Gan Yisheng responded to questions about Chen by vowing that "any party member who violates party discipline, no matter how high or low in rank, will be thoroughly investigated and seriously dealt with." Gan revealed that 11,701 party members were expelled from the 70-million-strong CCP last year for corruption and graft.

After a quarter century of trailblazing market reforms, virtually every faction--from the elitist "Shanghai gang" of ex-president Jiang Zemin to the "populist" faction headed by President Hu Jintao--has bad eggs. But the specter of an overzealous anti-graft drive evokes the nightmarish 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, when Maoist radicals tortured rivals. Nowadays, to maintain unity, the party has elaborate internal protocols to deal with miscreants. One rule is to pounce silently and cast a wide dragnet. A second rule: treat detainees with dignity, under a status called shanggui . Translated literally, shanggui means "double regulations." Detainees must undergo interrogation at a fixed time and a fixed place. This doesn't always lead to legal charges--but such detention usually ends an official's career.

When you round up suspects on such a wide scale, you also need someplace to put them (and the facilities can't be too shabby, to differentiate them from the notorious Cultural Revolution-era "cowsheds"). After recent scandals in the cities of Xiamen and Shenyang, party watchdogs commandeered entire guesthouses--just as they reportedly did with Shanghai's Hengshan Moller Villa Hotel last week.

The most important rule, of course, is to close ranks. China's top leaders have upheld a tacit agreement that investigations reach only so far. Once in a decade or so, a Politburo member might fall, as Chen did. But the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee has been immune to direct attack. Last week the Politburo publicly exhorted CCP members to follow the "strong leadership" of party head Hu Jintao--and to "withstand the temptations of power, money and sex."