TAIZHOU, China—When Liu Chongfu returned home to his pig farm in December 2014 after months in detention, he was haunted by what he had done. Under interrogation, he later told his family, he falsely admitted to bribing government officials.
Back home, released without being charged, Mr. Liu had nightmares and splitting headaches. His conscience weighed on him, his family said. So he publicly recanted in March 2015. In a written statement sent to the court, he said interrogators had deprived him of sleep and threatened his family to extract a phony confession that helped send four other men to prison.
In his statement, also posted online, he said he lied “because they forced me to where there was no other way than death. I didn’t want to die.”
President Xi Jinping has called his anticorruption campaign, one of the leader’s defining initiatives, a “life or death” matter. It is among the most popular elements of his administration, given how corruption has been endemic in China and how it threatens to undermine confidence in Communist Party control.
Since the campaign began in 2013, its reach has allowed Mr. Xi to root out resistance to his rule and secure party control over a society that is more prosperous and demanding.
Mr. Liu’s confession and retraction suggest a dark side to Mr. Xi’s efforts. Families around China say overzealous authorities have forced confessions, tortured suspects and made improper convictions.
The farmer tried to retract his confession before, while still in detention. “I cannot violate my conscience to do this,” he told his interrogators, according to his statement, a transcript of a video he made with his lawyer. He knew it would send innocent officials to jail, he said, and that “the real tragedy is still to follow.”
The four were convicted anyway.
Since Mr. Liu publicly recanted, families of the four have tried to expose what they call the antigraft campaign’s overreach. Some joined more than 200 families of fallen officials nationwide in an open letter this summer accusing the campaign of creating a climate of fear.
The twin daughters of one official whom Mr. Liu’s confession helped imprison took to social media. “The person who bribed has reversed his confession,” they wrote. “My father was tortured into confessing.”
After Mr. Liu’s retraction, prosecutors threw him back in jail and this time won his conviction for issuing 550,000 yuan ($81,000) in cash bribes. He continued to deny handing out that cash.
This spring, he lost an appeal of his two-year prison sentence. His prison term ended early this month and he returned home, said a person familiar with his family. Mr. Liu, 54 years old, declined to comment. Taizhou law-enforcement authorities and related government agencies declined to comment or didn’t respond to inquiries.
The Communist Party says the drive has punished more than 1 million officials with penalties ranging from demerits to dismissal to imprisonment. Its antigraft agency, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, has kept a relentless pace, with investigative teams descending on bureaucracies from Beijing down to provincial towns.
It is particularly in outlying areas where some officials, lawyers and suspects’ families have suggested the campaign has gone awry.
At his 2014 trial for accepting bribes of more than $1.5 million, Zhou Jianhua, who chaired the standing committee of the deep-south city of Xinyu’s legislature, told the court a former boss framed him for reporting the boss’s wife’s involvement in corruption. Mr. Zhou said in court he was tortured into confessing. He received a suspended death sentence, commuted to life.
Xinyu authorities didn’t respond to inquiries. The incarcerated Mr. Zhou couldn’t be reached for comment.
In Binhai county, north of Shanghai, investigators for more than a month detained the head of the judicial bureau, Deng Chengwei, burned him with cigarettes and beat him with electric cables, his wife said. After confessing, Mr. Deng recanted in court. He was sentenced to 11½ years for taking 315,000 yuan in bribes.
The Binhai prosecutors’ office declined to comment. Prison authorities said they couldn’t make Mr. Deng available for comment. His wife said he falsely confessed.
It isn’t known whether the allegedly forced confessions are a significant part of Beijing’s campaign, and if those recanting are now telling the truth.
“Our party has internally checked all leaders and cadres’ cases, and they all have objective facts,” Wu Yuliang, the antigraft commission’s deputy secretary, told a media briefing this year. “The evidence is as strong as a mountain.” The commission didn’t respond to requests for comment.
In China, high-priority political campaigns typically come with targets and pressure on officials to pursue them. To meet Beijing’s economic-growth goals, local officials often strive to outdo one another. Results include wasteful overbuilding and padded statistics, economists say.
“The anticorruption campaign shouldn’t be about competition. We can’t have ‘anticorruption GDP’ and only look at numbers or make targets,” Huang Jianguo, then party secretary of Hunan province’s discipline inspection commission, was quoted as saying in state media last year. “Anticorruption needs to be based on the facts.” He couldn’t be reached for comment.
Fu Hualing, a University of Hong Kong law professor, said lack of clear ground rules in the campaign, and questions about whether it is being used to mete out punishment for other reasons—such as failure of officials in economically lagging areas—has created uncertainties. “Who will be prosecuted? Who will not? It’s clearly not a legal standard,” he said. “But what is the standard? Outsiders don’t know.”
A pig farmer’s tale
The anticorruption drive tore through Taizhou, the pig farmer’s town, as part of its nationwide rollout. Lying between green hills and the sea to the south of Shanghai, Taizhou is a prosperous area of farms and small factories.
A carpenter, Mr. Liu in the 1990s stumbled on a book, “How to Raise Pigs Fast.” He and his wife started a farm.
Pig prices fluctuated, and they ran up debt. Zhu Liuxia, their 28-year-old daughter, remembers shoveling manure with her sister before they were tall enough to reach the top of pigsties. She has been running the farm with her mother, working 14 hours a day. “There was never an easy time,” she said. “And then this happened.”
Investigators bore down on the agriculture bureau of Taizhou’s Jiaojiang district in 2014, part of a nationwide push to end misdeeds affecting farmers, including land seizures and misuse of poverty relief and other funds. Investigators detained officials including the bureau’s head and deputy, all of whom had dealings with Mr. Liu as a constituent.
Authorities took Mr. Liu into custody in April 2014. In May, investigation records show, interrogators questioned him five consecutive nights about whether he paid kickbacks for government subsidies.
After interrogators threatened to bankrupt his farm and to arrest his wife and daughter, he confessed, he said in his retraction video, a copy of which The Wall Street Journal obtained. They coached him, he said, to claim he gave cash bribes. Prosecutors said those bribes totaled 550,000 yuan from 2011 through 2013.
“They said if you don’t get your words right, either you die or get disabled,” Mr. Liu said in the video. Starting in May 2014, authorities began detaining the four officials and putting them on trial.
That August, Mr. Liu tried to recant when authorities offered to release him, family members said. They kept him jailed. Based on his earlier confession, the four officials were convicted and sentenced to 5 to 11 years in prison.
During trials, one wrote the Chinese character “injustice” on his palm, showing spectators, said the wife of one official on trial, who attended.
All confessed to taking cash bribes during pretrial interrogations, court documents show. Two said they also took supermarket gift cards of 1,000 yuan (about $150) to 2,000 yuan from Mr. Liu. One told the court he received cards totaling 9,000 yuan over five years.
Shopping-card-giving is common in China, especially over holidays, and Chinese businessmen say giving officials gifts and small sums of cash is customary. Holiday gifts of cards to officials are so pervasive as to not usually be prosecuted as bribery, say Chinese criminal lawyers. The charges against Mr. Liu didn’t include giving cards.
Under China’s 1997 criminal law, officials are generally liable only for accepting gifts of 5,000 yuan or above, with some exceptions for aggravating circumstances such as past bribe-taking or threatening demands. This year, the threshold rose to 30,000 yuan.
Three recanted during trial, saying they were innocent of taking cash bribes. Another recanted his cash-bribe confession during a subsequent trial on appeal.
One of them, Chen Xialin, a former soldier and deputy director with the agriculture bureau, had helped Mr. Liu get government subsidies. For a month in detention, Mr. Chen was interrogated overnight and forced to work days assembling holiday lights, according to a transcript of an interview he did with Mr. Liu’s lawyer. When Mr. Chen nodded off in the iron chair he was bound to, investigators shouted and bashed plastic bottles onto a table.
“You will definitely be doing jail time,” his interrogators told him, according to a transcript of his interrogation viewed by the Journal. “Even if you don’t confess, it’s what leaders have decided.” His only hope, they said, was to confess and try to get a lighter sentence. He confessed to receiving 120,000 yuan in cash bribes and 8,000 yuan in supermarket gift cards over four years from Mr. Liu.
Mr. Chen recanted in court, denying taking bribes and saying sleep deprivation and duress forced his false confession, court documents show. The court sentenced him to 10 years and three months imprisonment.
The four officials, incarcerated now, couldn’t be reached for comment. Each of their wives told the Journal her husband was innocent.
Mr. Liu was released without charge. That wasn’t unusual—China has until recently focused on punishing bribe takers, not givers.
Back home, his wife and daughter said, he stopped tending the pigs and would break into tears. “He used to see the world as good,” said Ms. Zhu, his daughter. “But things became dark for him: He just thought, ‘How could the world be like this?’ ”
About three months later, Mr. Liu issued his retraction. When it surfaced online, “it was like seeing sunlight,” said the wife of one of the imprisoned officials.
Four months later, Mr. Liu was arrested and tried for bribery, convicted and imprisoned.
On a hot summer day, the wives of the officials whom Mr. Liu’s confession had helped jail were in the court audience. They had hoped Mr. Liu’s retraction would help free their husbands. As the trial proceeded, Mr. Chen’s wife, Xu Guanqing, feeling the court was arbitrarily finding Mr. Liu guilty, stood up and shouted sarcastically: “If you say he’s guilty, well, then he must be guilty?” she recalled. Bailiffs ejected her.
One recent day in a room with peeling wallpaper, Ms. Xu stared around the 800-square-foot apartment the couple has shared for two decades. They used to watch news about the national anticorruption campaign on television.
“We really welcomed it,” she said. “He’d say, ‘They caught another tiger!’ ”
Now that the campaign has hit home, she feels lost. “Look at the conditions we are living in,” she said, pointing to rips in their couch to demonstrate there was no evidence of bribe-fueled extravagance. For years, she said, she has worked a warehouse job to augment Mr. Chen’s 6,000-to-7,000-yuan monthly salary. “This is truly a miscarriage of justice.”
The court ordered Mr. Chen’s family to pay 40,000 yuan in fines and return the money he was convicted of taking, Ms. Xu said. Officers searched the house and saw “we had nothing to give.”
Ms. Xu is allowed to visit her husband once a month for a half-hour, she said. During one visit, she brought news his father had died.
“I hate Liu Chongfu,” she said of the pig farmer. “But I also sympathize with him. He was also forced into doing what he did.”
Mr. Liu’s family has been keeping a low profile in town. Mr. Liu, now back home, is showing signs of depression, and the family has taken him to the hospital for treatment, said a person familiar with the family. He doesn’t want to speak publicly, the person said, because the family is worried police are monitoring them.