Thursday, November 5, 2015

Guangdong High Court Asks Why So Few Are Found Innocent

A recently freed, wrongfully accused man becomes emotional during a 2014 interview. Credit:

Since 2012, Chinese legal authorities have overturned a series of high-profile convictions and taken steps to prevent miscarriages of justice, but one question is still being asked: why do Chinese courts acquit so few defendants? (In 2013, the acquittal rate rose for the first time since 2000, growing annually from six acquittals per 10,000 adjudications to seven.) Some argue that institutional support for conviction stands in the way of systemic change.

Researchers at Guangdong High People’s Court wanted to find out for themselves, conducting interviews, holding seminars, and analyzing court documents related to acquittals throughout the province. The results, which were published as a report last year, offer a fascinating view into how those within the judiciary interpret the institutional, legal, political, and social factors that shape the way Chinese courts operate.

The researchers report that, for the five years between 2008 and 2012, Guangdong courts acquitted only 198 individuals in 180 cases. This represents a mere 0.04 percent of all individuals subject to criminal decisions that took effect during the period. The great majority (86 percent) of acquittals were on grounds of insufficient evidence, with a handful of others issued for things like self-defense, mental incompetence, or defendants who were under the age of 16. Acquittals occurred in a wide variety of cases—though not in any involving state-security offenses—but were most frequent in cases of assault. The trial process typically took longer than average when it resulted in acquittal, extended in accordance with the law by both courts and prosecutors. The average length of a trial that ended in acquittal was 169 days, or about five months, with the longest stretching to 504 days and the shortest at 55.

These quantitative results are not the most interesting part of the report, in part because there are so few cases to study. Much more interesting are the authors’ observations on the factors contributing to the dearth of acquittals, the impact this has on the legal system and society at large, and what might be done to remedy the situation.

Acquittal Averse Strategies

The extremely low number of acquittals doesn’t mean that criminal prosecutions in Guangdong are rock-solid. The report points out that, when the facts of the case are unclear and evidence is insufficient, judges use a number of strategies other than acquittal. In relatively minor cases, for example, courts might work out an informal “plea bargain,” promising to hand down a non-custodial penalty (like a suspended sentence) in exchange for a defendant’s promise not to appeal. In death-penalty cases, on the other hand, a court might issue judgments “with room to maneuver” (liu you yudi caipan)—imposing a more lenient suspended death sentence that gets commuted to life imprisonment (and then, later, a fixed-term sentence) almost automatically. Appeals courts are in an even better position to shift responsibility, as they can always send cases back to a lower court for retrial rather than rule to acquit.

Another common way courts avoid acquittals is to allow the prosecution to withdraw its indictment, which it may do at any point before a verdict is announced. In some cases, this has the effect of ending the case against the defendant, but in others, the prosecution can decide to submit a new indictment or send the case back to police for additional investigation. This amounts to a waste of resources, the report says, and results in individuals being locked up for far longer than they ought to be.

The report argues that prosecutors, with the help of the courts, are abusing this provision of the Criminal Procedure Law (CPL) and that the practice needs to be more strictly regulated. For example, it recommends that prosecutors generally not be allowed to withdraw indictments for unclear facts or insufficient evidence. This is because the CPL already gives prosecutors two opportunities to request trial adjournment for additional investigation. If this is not enough, the report concludes, then the court should exercise its power to issue an acquittal. The report also suggests prohibiting prosecutors from withdrawing an indictment once investigation of the facts and evidence has begun at trial and, when withdrawal is approved, limiting prosecutors to one re-indictment.

Inside the Pressure Cooker

Why is it necessary to go through so much effort to avoid issuing acquittals? A recurring theme throughout the report is pressure. Stability-first governance campaigns and a whole system of associated performance measurements create pressures for conviction throughout the criminal justice system. Written and unwritten rules place a premium on rates of case-solving, arrest approval, and conviction as factors used to measure police or procuratorate effectiveness and can be tied to individual promotion or ranking. Since acquittals have the effect of lowering these statistics, police and prosecutors are incentivized to seek conviction and mobilize all manner of available resources to influence courts not to acquit.

As the final stop in the criminal process, courts bear the brunt of the pressure to convict that’s built into the system. As the report puts it: “The public security bureau is responsible for cooking the meal and the procuratorate for serving it. Last to come, the court has only two choices as it faces this meal—either eat up or reject all the work that the first two institutions have already put into the case.” Acquittal, in other words, puts courts in potential conflict with other local law-enforcement bodies that are expecting conviction.

In major cases, especially homicides, police often face considerable political and social pressure to bring a culprit to justice. When they do make arrests, it can lead to merit citations being publicly issued to the investigation team even before indictment, let alone conviction. If the court later acquits, not only must these citations be withdrawn, there will likely be compensation claims made against the police for wrongful detention. In some cases, the same individuals who had been rewarded for solving the case might end up facing investigation for misconduct or even criminal liability.

Prioritizing Public and Process

There are many negative consequences arising from courts’ failure to issue acquittals, according to the report. The most obvious effect is on the credibility of the courts. On this point, the report is particularly frank, warning: “the public is already deeply suspicious and dissatisfied with the [level of] fairness in our criminal justice system, and wrongful convictions are adding fuel to the fire.” They continue, stating: "Convictions based on protecting face and reducing pressure only bring momentary peace and tranquility. When and if the bomb will explode all becomes a matter of luck. But what’s certain is that, the moment the bomb goes off, the courts will suffer the heaviest casualties."

In order to prevent calamity, the report recognizes that courts must exercise their judicial powers more independently, but it provides little advice on how to do so, apart from improving awareness and understanding of the law and legal principles like the presumption of innocence. There is no mention of the "coordination” between police, procuratorates, and courts by the party’s politico-legal committees and little on the role of adjudication committees, where senior court officials get an opportunity to weigh in on how to rule in complex or important cases they have not personally heard.

In fact, the authors appear to believe that increased communication between investigators, prosecutors, and judges can help judicial authorities make their case about resolving problematic prosecutions through acquittal. They recommend, for example, having police and prosecutors sit in on adjudication committee meetings in cases where problems arise. The assumption is that this will enable the courts to exert influence over the other law-enforcement bodies as opposed to the other way around.

One thing that seems to be on the minds of the report’s authors is a responsibility system for wrongful convictions. They make the case that mistakes are inevitable within any legal system and that neither wrongful convictions nor acquittals should automatically be thought of as “mistakes” for which someone must be punished. That is what happens, they suggest, when too much emphasis is placed on outcomes without giving due weight to process.

This is especially important for judges, they argue, and requires transforming the way that judges are evaluated and how data is used. They believe that judicial statistics like conviction rates have no place in deciding promotion or professional ranking. They do, however, see value in continuing to collect statistics and conduct ongoing research in order to evaluate the performance of the criminal justice system as a whole and to boost its credibility with the public.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

China Adds Life Without Parole to Anti-Corruption Arsenal

The National People's Congress passes the ninth amendment to the Criminal Law in August. Credit:

Just before passing the ninth amendment to the Criminal Law late last month, the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress inserted a new provision. Unlike many other new provisions, including those regarding defense lawyers and capital punishment, “cults,” and protestors, this provision was not subject to public consultation. In China’s non-democratic political system, public consultation is one of the few chances for citizens to provide input into the legislative and policymaking processes. It is intended, at least in part, to reinforce popular support for the outcome.

This last-minute provision altered Article 383, which covers the offenses of corruption and taking bribes. Effective November 1, the provision authorizes courts, in certain cases, to add a condition at the time of sentencing to require an individual to spend life in prison without possibility of sentence reduction or parole. The condition may only be applied in corruption cases where the defendant received a suspended death sentence and had that sentence commuted to life imprisonment after the two-year period of reprieve. If such a condition is imposed, the convicted individual will not be eligible for clemency that is ordinarily available under law—meaning that he or she will truly be required to spend the rest of his or her life in prison.

Paving the Way to Abolition

Chinese media has emphasized the significance of this provision as part of the sweeping anti-corruption campaign that has become a signature policy of Xi Jinping. Legal experts and commentators have widely praised the move for sending a strong signal that corruption will continue to be punished severely.

Others have noted that the introduction of life without possibility of release may have wider implications for abolishing the death penalty in China. Public attitudes toward the death penalty are complex and context-dependent, but continued popular support for capital punishment is one factor underlying the cautious and gradual approach that China’s leaders have adopted in reducing its use. Longstanding anger over rampant corruption has helped fuel public support and contributed to anxiety over efforts to strip the death penalty from many economic and non-violent offenses.

Part of this anxiety is rooted in the belief that the death penalty is the only punishment severe enough to deter the most serious crimes. However, in recent years, policies aimed at gradual abolition have led to fewer and fewer death sentences in corruption cases, making suspended death sentences the de facto maximum penalty. Through commutation and sentence reduction, individuals given suspended death sentences can potentially leave prison after serving terms not much longer than the maximum sentence of fixed-term imprisonment, or about 18 years. Some members of the public also worry that corrupt officials might be able to use connections or bribes to buy prison stays that are even shorter.

Given these factors, the introduction of life without parole in serious corruption cases has the potential to mitigate some of the public doubts about lenient punishment for corrupt officials. In so doing, it could also clear the way for China to eventually eliminate the death penalty for corruption. Advocates of death penalty reform anticipate that imprisoning corrupt officials for the rest of their lives would satisfy the public’s expectation of severe punishment. They also believe that in the future life without parole could be extended to other types of crime—including violent offenses.

Following a reform model often seen in China, legal reformers thus appear to have taken advantage of the current anti-corruption environment to experiment with a new kind of punishment and assess the prospects for further refinement and expansion based on practical experience.

A number of issues remain to be addressed. Zhuang Deshui, an anti-corruption expert at Peking University, points out that in order for the new measure to have its desired deterrent effect, courts must “dare” to use it. To this end, Professor Zhao Bingzhi of Beijing Normal University Law School notes that it is necessary for the Supreme People’s Court to issue a judicial interpretation setting clear guidelines for when to apply the new condition. How fairly the condition is applied will play an important role in whether the public can accept life without parole as a substitute for the death penalty.

Choosing Retribution over Rehabilitation

By choosing to deprive certain prisoners of any possibility for early release, China is giving more weight to the retributive and deterrent functions of criminal punishment than to its longstanding emphasis on rehabilitation and reform. If things continue to develop in this direction, what impact might this have on China’s criminal justice system?

Other than the United States, where in the 1980s an abrupt departure from reformative justice helped make life without possibility of commutation or parole a common sentence, very few other jurisdictions impose such categorical penalties. Elsewhere, in fact, it is more common to make possible some form of conditional release after ensuring that an individual has been imprisoned long enough to reflect the seriousness of his or her offense. This is in keeping with the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. The rules state that the protection of society through imprisonment, and other deprivations of liberty, “can be achieved only if the period of imprisonment is used to ensure, so far as possible, the reintegration of such persons into society upon release so that they can lead a law-abiding and self-supporting life.”

In an article published just last year, Professor Zhao Bingzhi criticized life imprisonment without the possibility of sentence reduction or parole as inhumane and a violation of human dignity comparable to the death penalty itself. In a forum on death penalty reform in 2008, Zhao and other Chinese legal experts presented arguments on why life without parole was unreasonable and ill suited to China’s justice system. Now, however, these same experts appear to be embracing more stringent penalties in the interest of making it possible to do more to reduce the death penalty. Life without the possibility of release for corrupt officials may be popular with the public, but the American experience ought to serve as a warning to China that failure to strike the right balance between punishment and reform can lead to many new and serious challenges to human rights.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Draft Criminal Law Amendment Takes Aim at Defense Lawyers in China

China's National People's Congress in session in Beijing. Credit: Xinhua

One of the more controversial parts of the current proposal to amend China’s Criminal Law concerns the possible expansion of Article 309, covering the offense of “disrupting courtroom order.” Lawmakers have argued that new measures are necessary to “ensure the ability of the people’s courts to implement their adjudicatory powers in an independent and impartial manner” by punishing those who might try to use courtroom disruptions to influence judicial decision-making. They are responding to worries about a worsening atmosphere inside China’s courtrooms—particularly the sense that growing antagonism between judges and defense lawyers is helping to undermine the dignity and credibility of the courts in the public eye. Critics, on the other hand, argue that the proposal unfairly targets lawyers and will have a chilling effect on their ability to pursue vigorous defense on behalf of clients.

Few would challenge the value to society of preserving a substantial degree of courtroom order. A courtroom should be a forum in which opposing sides of a contentious issue may argue in a reasonable, if sometimes heated, manner over important matters of truth and justice. It is thus reasonable to demand that all sides adhere to a set of fair and impartial rules and standards of decorum because respect for the outcome of the judicial process is linked to the respect that all participants demonstrate toward the process itself. If disorder in China’s courts is in fact contributing to a public crisis of confidence, then addressing the problem at its root is an essential step toward furthering the development of rule of law.

At the heart of the debate over the proposed amendment to Article 309 is disagreement over the root causes of tension in the courtroom. Who is to blame when conflict erupts between the various parties at trial, especially between lawyers and judges? Are unscrupulous lawyers showing brazen contempt for the law and the courts, or are judicial bias and procedural violations forcing some lawyers to adopt more confrontational tactics as a form of protest? Regulating lawyer behavior through the threat of criminal sanctions might lead to a more orderly courtroom, but if defense lawyers become meek participants in judicial proceedings that remain arbitrary and biased, then this is likely to do little to enhance the courts’ reputation for delivering justice. On the contrary, imposing further limits on the fragile rights of lawyers may actually erode public confidence in the Chinese judicial system even further.

Letter of the Law

The existing offense under Article 309 imposes a maximum sentence of three years in prison for “gathering people to stir up trouble or attack a courtroom” or “assaulting a judicial officer (sifa gongzuo renyuan),” when those acts “seriously disrupt courtroom order.” The draft amendment proposes to expand the assault clause to include “those participating in the proceedings.” It also adds two new offense categories: “insulting, defaming, or threatening a judicial officer or participant in the proceedings after being told by the court to stop” and “engaging in other acts that seriously disrupt the order of the court.”

The first of these changes is relatively unproblematic. Liu Renwen, a legal scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, has in fact been quick to point out that expanding the scope of protection against courtroom assaults is aimed at protecting the rights of lawyers. In particular, he believes that the change will help address attacks by victims’ family members against defense lawyers or defendants’ relatives. Such attacks are unfortunately frequent in China, particularly in cases involving the death penalty.

There is much less support for the two other proposed amendments to Article 309. Critics contend that “insulting,” “defaming,” and “threatening” are acts that can each be defined quite broadly. Professor Qu Xinjiu of China University of Political Science and Law notes that “insult” can include ordinary name-calling, damage to reputation that might be eligible for civil litigation, and a relatively rare degree of offense that might qualify for criminal prosecution. The proposed expansion of Article 309 does not make clear what degree of insult would qualify for criminal prosecution, or why the existing criminal statute covering insult and defamation is insufficient to handle the acts being targeted. Observers similarly note the ambiguous and subjective nature of the word “threaten” (weixie), which has no corresponding criminal offense. To remedy these problems, Professor Chen Xingliang of Peking University Law School has recommended scrapping the “insulting, defaming, or threatening” clause entirely and expanding the assault clause to cover the more menacing act of “intimidating” (konghe) judicial officers and other parties.

The prospect of sanctions against insult and defamation at trial is particularly troubling to lawyers, who feel unfairly singled out given the way the offense is written to presume the court’s authority. Many have argued that China should in fact adopt measures to give lawyers civil and penal immunity for statements made in connection to a case—a recommendation based on Article 20 of the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers. Otherwise, it is feared, lawyers who dread the consequences of their speech may become “obsequious and servile” and reluctant to express their defense opinions fully, thereby potentially harming the interests of the defendants they represent.

It is the final clause, known as the “pocket clause” for its ability to contain almost anything, which has generated the most opposition. Lawyers and legal scholars are frequently critical of such legal formulations, considering them to be sloppy, “unscientific,” and open to arbitrary and abusive interpretations. In this instance, critics argue, the inclusion of such a clause is particularly detrimental to lawyers. This is because, as Chen Xingliang explains, both the Supreme People’s Court and Supreme People’s Procuratorate have the power to issue legal interpretations that can shape how provisions like these are applied. In other words, of the three main participants in courtroom proceedings, only lawyers have no say over what “other acts” might be construed as serious disruptions to courtroom behavior—potentially putting them at a serious disadvantage.

Critics and Crackdowns

Stepping back from the issue of how the proposed offense would be worded, critics of the amendment also doubt whether an expanded criminal offense is even necessary. In addition to existing offenses covering insult and defamation, Article 194 of the Criminal Procedure Law empowers a presiding judge to forcibly remove a trial participant or spectator for continuing to violate courtroom order after being warned to stop. In serious cases, the judge may also impose a fine of up to 1000 yuan or a jail term of up to 15 days. With respect to lawyers, other disciplinary sanctions—such as formal warnings or suspensions from practice—can be applied to deal with the most serious cases.

Despite all of these arguments, which were amply presented to lawmakers when the first draft of the Criminal Law amendments was made public in late 2014, the proposed expansion of Article 309 remained essentially unchanged in the second draft presented to the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPSC) in late June. Drafters are expected to submit one final proposal for passage later this year.

Will lawmakers once again ignore the opposition of lawyers and legal scholars?

They may very well do so, if the recent crackdown on Chinese rights lawyers is any indication. Liang Jianbing, a law professor at Liaoning Normal University in Dalian, believes that there is a clear link between public opposition to the proposed changes to Article 309 and the sweeping detention of lawyers initiated on July 10. He suspects that many members of the NPCSC were swayed by the outpouring of criticism directed at the first draft by lawyers and legal scholars, putting the future of the proposed amendments in jeopardy. In response, law-enforcement institutions and others who want to see this legislation passed have carried out a highly public campaign against a group of rights lawyers, some of whom have been engaged in courtroom confrontations in the past. The media exposure of these lawyers as “criminals,” Liang argues, is a tactical move intended to overcome remaining skepticism and resistance and secure enough support to ensure that the amendment passes.

Even if the campaign against lawyers is not directly aimed at ensuring passage of an amended Article 309, both threaten to contribute to fragmentation and passivity among lawyers and accentuate divisions between lawyers and other legal professionals. Han Jiayi of the All-China Lawyers Association has warned of lawyers choosing to “stay away from the courts” and instead focusing their practice on matters that do not involve litigation. Those in power might not mind if more lawyers opt to stay out of the courtroom, or if the ones who go to trial are less willing to challenge authority. Nevertheless, these outcomes would create a version of “rule of law” unlikely to satisfy many Chinese citizens.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

China Mulls Harsher Penalties for Protesters, “Cults”; Fewer Capital Crimes

Director Li Shishi of the Legislative Affairs Commission of the NPCSC explains proposed Criminal Law amendments to the NPC on October 27, 2014. Credit:

In July, members of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) published and opened for a one-month period of public consultation a set of proposals for amending China’s Criminal Law for the ninth time since it was overhauled in 1997. The proposals are a revision of an earlier draft first introduced in October 2014, and the NPCSC is likely to review a third (and probably final) draft of the proposed amendments at a bi-monthly meeting later this year.

The Chinese media has highlighted a number of overarching themes and new features in the proposed amendments. The draft introduces stronger provisions to combat terrorism and “religious extremism,” strengthens provisions connected to cyber-security, and imposes stricter anti-corruption measures.

Despite strong opposition from many in the legal community, the current draft also restricts lawyers from revealing certain types of case information and introduces harsher penalties for Article 309, “disrupting court order.” The sweeping crackdown on lawyers that Chinese authorities have carried out since July 10 places the significance of these provisions in a new light. (This topic will be covered in a subsequent post.)

This article focuses on provisions related to death penalty reform and the redefinition of punishments for protesters and “cult” members once commonly subjected to the now defunct system of reeducation through labor (RTL).

Death Penalty Reform

The current draft amendment proposes to remove the death penalty from nine criminal offenses (see below), which would bring the total number of capital crimes in China to 46. The removal of the death penalty from these nine offenses would not put much of a dent in China’s world-leading use of capital punishment, which largely focuses on homicide, rape, robbery, and drug offenses. It would, however, show the government continuing to make good on its pledge to work towards gradual abolition of the death penalty. The current proposal starts chipping away at the death penalty for offenses that involve a certain degree of violence, but since many of the 46 offenses that would remain eligible for capital punishment are non-violent in nature, China still has some way to go before it joins the growing ranks of abolitionist countries.

Crimes Slated to Remove Death Penalty
Article No. Offenses
151(1) Smuggling weapons or ammunition
Smuggling nuclear material
Smuggling counterfeit currency
170 Manufacturing counterfeit currency
192 Fraudulent fundraising
358(1) Organizing prostitution
Coercing into prostitution
426 Obstructing the performance of military duties
433 Spreading rumors and disinformation during wartime
Source: Dui Hua

At least two of the crimes, fraudulent fundraising and coercing into prostitution, recently stirred public controversies in connection with capital punishment. Wu Ying narrowly escaped execution when the Supreme People’s Court overturned the death penalty against her in May 2012. The decision followed several years of highly public campaigning on behalf of the young entrepreneur who was convicted of deliberately defrauding investors of 770 million yuan (approximately $100 million). Tang Hui—the “petitioning mother” who earned widespread public support after being sent to RTL in 2012—doggedly protested the unwillingness of the courts to sentence to death those convicted of forcing her 11-year-old daughter to work as a prostitute.

Though it is common to justify slower progress toward abolition with the presence of strong public support for the death penalty in China, there is resistance within China’s party and government institutions as well. According to reports, earlier drafts of the current amendments that circulated internally had proposed adding language to the Criminal Law’s general provisions specifying that the death penalty be limited only to the “most serious crimes.” This would have meant adopting the standard set in Article 6(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which China has signed but not yet ratified. The language was ultimately dropped because of unspecified opposition.

Goodbye RTL, Hello Prison


Another aspect of the current amendments is changes made in response to the 2013 decision to eliminate RTL, a system of administrative custodial punishment used for decades to incarcerate individuals for up to three years for unlawful acts deemed too minor to pursue criminal punishment. With this tool of maintaining stability no longer available, the Criminal Law is being adapted to handle many of the kinds of cases that were previously dealt with through RTL.

One controversial example is the proposed amendment to Article 290(1), which covers “gathering a crowd to disrupt public order.” Citing the problem of individuals who engage in “persistent and disruptive petitioning” that disrupts work at government offices, drafters propose to expand this article to target those who fail to “correct” (gaizheng) their behavior after being given administrative penalties for “disrupting the work order of state organs on multiple occasions” and those who “disrupt social order by organizing or giving financial support to people for the purpose of gathering illegally on multiple occasions.” If the proposed amendment passes, these types of behavior—both of which might have been dealt with through RTL in the past—will be subject to criminal punishment of up to three years’ in prison.

Such changes amount to a complete redefinition of the offense currently covered by Article 290(1), given that it would apply to individual protesters regardless of whether they gather together with others. In the case of “organizing or providing financial support,” it is not even necessary for an individual to take part directly in any protest. Critics argue that it is potentially counterproductive to target individual protesters—many of whom are petitioners forced to resort to disruptive behaviors in order to draw attention to legitimate claims of injustice. As Tsinghua University law Professor Zhou Guangquan recently noted, “Criminalizing such acts will make it harder to carry out supervision and check that local party and government bodies are governing in accordance with the law.”

But the authorities have already signaled an intention to strike against those who engage in acts of public protest—whether as individuals or in groups—because of the perceived threat these disruptions pose to the stability upon which the political order supposedly rests. Together with the crime of “provoking a serious disturbance,” Article 290(1) has become a favored charge against activists who organize and demonstrate on behalf of social justice and legal reform, such as Xu Zhiyong or Guo Feixiong. In 2013, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate noted that illegal assembly and gathering crowds to disrupt social order were being carried out “with the goal of subverting state power.”

“Cult” members

Receiving less attention have been the changes proposed to Article 300, which covers the offense of “using a secret society, cult, or superstition to undermine implementation of the law.” Since 1997 this offense has primarily been used to target members of spiritual and religious organizations (like Falun Gong, Shouters, or Almighty God) that authorities have outlawed as “cults.”

There are presently two penalty ranges under Article 300 based on the severity of the offense as determined by a court. Ordinarily, “cult” activity carries a penalty of between three and seven years in prison, though certain mitigating factors or grounds for leniency can sometimes lead to sentences of less than three years. When there is a finding of “especially grave circumstances,” however, the court may impose a sentence of as high as 15 years.

Until recently, many of those accused of engaging in unlawful “cult” activities were not subject to criminal punishment. Instead, they were sent to RTL camps for up to three years—often multiple times. Though RTL camps were in many respects indistinguishable from prisons (and sometimes arguably worse), the punishment was still considered to be much more lenient than a prison sentence.

Since the elimination of RTL at the end of 2013, the only way for the authorities to punish those accused of “relatively minor” offenses related to “cult” activity beyond 10- or 15-day administrative detentions is through unlawful detention in “legal education centers.” In response, drafters have proposed an additional clause for Article 300 that would cover acts deemed to be “relatively minor” and make offenders subject to imprisonment of up to three years, short-term detention (lasting up to one year), “public surveillance,” or “deprivation of political rights.” Courts have also been empowered to impose monetary fines.

Perhaps in the spirit of the penal policy of “combining lenience with severity” (kuan-yan xiangji), the latest draft of the proposed amendment to Article 300 also proposes to raise the maximum penalty for “especially grave circumstances” to life imprisonment. According to the 1999 judicial interpretation covering Article 300, aggravating factors that can be considered “especially grave” include organizing groups or recruiting members across provincial boundaries, colluding with overseas organizations or persons, and printing or distributing very large quantities of propaganda. Also included in this category is a catchall of “inciting, deceiving, or organizing members or others to undermine the implementation of state law or administrative regulations that results in grave consequences.”

Drafters have not publicly offered any justification for this significant increase in the maximum penalty for Article 300 nor have they given any indication of what sort of activity might necessitate a life sentence. Considering that Article 300 relies on arbitrary determinations of when particular belief systems qualify as “cults,” the possibility of life imprisonment for violating this provision poses a particularly grave threat to religious freedom that is excessive given the kinds of acts that presently qualify for the most serious punishment under that statute.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Fewer Juvenile Arrests Approved; Migrants Bear Brunt of Charges

Judge reads the suspended sentence verdict to juvenile offenders. Credit: Yunnan Qujin People's Congress, March 2015

The Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP) recently held a press conference announcing new figures that show “strict adherence” to the policy of reducing juvenile arrests and indictments, and a startlingly high percentage of migrants among juveniles charged. About 27 percent of juvenile arrests and seven percent of juvenile indictments were not approved in 2014, compared with 18 percent and five percent, respectively, in 2012 (see chart below).

Prosecution of Juveniles in China, 2012-2014

Arrests not approved Indictments not approved
2012 17.51% 5.18%
2013 25.23% 6.65%
2014 26.66% 7.34%
Source: Supreme People’s Procuratorate, Dui Hua

The SPP made no mention of sentencing outcomes for indicted juveniles, but a source with knowledge of the data told Dui Hua that non-custodial sentences were given to 40.24 percent of juveniles who went to trial in 2014. This compares to 41.75 percent (including those who were exempted from punishment) in 2012, as reported by the Supreme People’s Court Research Office, and 35.56 percent in 2010, according to the official compendium China Juvenile Justice (zhongguo shaonian sifa). In 2010, the majority, or 84.81 percent, of juveniles who received non-custodial punishments or exemptions were given suspended sentences. Fines were the next most common punishment at 5.96 percent, followed by exemption from punishment (5.43 percent) and public surveillance (3.80 percent).

Since a section on juvenile cases was included in the amended Criminal Procedure Law (CPL) that went into effect in 2013, more than 40 percent of juveniles going to trial each year have received non-custodial sentences. Sources indicate, however, that this percentage dipped in 2014 compared to 2013 and 2012. This may be partially explained by the fact that drafts of the proposed CPL amendments were made public as early as 2011. Judicial organs at various levels likely began increasing non-custodial measures for juveniles in 2012 and early gains may have exceeded those of later interventions.

A decline in the percentage of non-custodial sentences may also be due to the fact that, in 2014, 74.84 percent of indicted juveniles were migrants. Juveniles whose hukou, or household registration, is outside the place where they commit an offense are less likely to receive non-custodial sentences for myriad reasons. These include inability to offer compensation; monitoring organizations that refuse migrants; and difficulty finding guardians, which leads to lengthy detention periods bordering on excessive punishment.

In Zhejiang, a province outdone only by Guangdong in its number of migrant workers, juvenile offenders received non-custodial sentences in fewer than 25 percent of cases in both 2009 and 2014. In Liaoning Province, with a much smaller migrant population, nearly 55 percent of juvenile offenders received non-custodial sentences in 2009. The figure increased to 58.76 percent, almost 20 points above the national average, in 2014.

Another factor at play could be the concentration of violent offenses. In 2014, the most common offenses committed by juveniles across China were theft (29.3 percent), robbery (20.73 percent), intentional assault (15.57 percent), picking quarrels and provoking trouble (7.64 percent), and affray (7.35 percent). Drug offenses, rape, and forcible seizure also accounted for a relatively large number of crimes. Due to public safety concerns, people who commit violent crime are less likely to receive non-custodial sentences.

The SPP also announced that juvenile offenders are getting younger, with an uptick in offenses among 14- to 16-year-olds. The young age of juveniles in conflict with the law may have contributed to decisions not to approve arrests and indictments. It also underscores the growing importance of records sealing.

NGO Law Threatens Support for Reform

Dui Hua held an exchange on the topic with the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) and judges from 12 Chinese provinces and municipalities in October 2014. As it stands, the Chinese government appears to be closing the door on these kinds of exchanges, which have the potential to assist homegrown initiatives to improve rights protections for Chinese citizens. The amendments to the Criminal Procedure Law that went into effect in 2013 were the first revisions to that law in 16 years and were greatly facilitated by domestic and foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Among these NGOs, Dui Hua held juvenile justice exchanges with the SPC in 2008, 2010, 2012, and 2014. Concepts proposed during the exchanges were incorporated into the amended law.

The impending passage of the foreign NGO management law now threatens to regulate exchanges like these into extinction, taking with them tangible benefits to the Chinese people. The draft law has also been criticized extensively for the large cost it could bring to domestic Chinese NGOs and China’s general populace. In its current form, the law offers little but a lose-lose situation for China and its achievements in human rights.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

More People Say China Doesn’t Respect Human Rights: Global Poll

Hundreds of protesters march in Istanbul on July 5 against Beijing's policies towards the Muslim Uyghur minority. Source: AP
Chinese diplomats often assert that progress on human rights in China has been remarkable and is plain to see. The results of a recent survey by the Pew Research Center call this rosy assessment into question. In country after country, including China’s top trading partners, big majorities see human rights in China as bad and getting worse.

Since 2013, the year Xi Jinping assumed China’s presidency, the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes project has conducted a one-of-its-kind survey that asks whether the Chinese government respects the individual liberties of its people. Over the last three years, Pew has polled more than 120,000 individuals in 49 countries. People in 34 of these countries were surveyed in all three years of Xi’s presidency. Pew conducted the latest survey in 40 countries from May 25–27, 2015; the results were released on June 23.

"Does the government of China respect the personal freedoms of its people?" (Global median)

Sources: Pew Research Center, Dui Hua.

The survey finds a sharp deterioration in international opinion towards the Chinese government’s human rights record since the last survey of 43 countries in 2014. The poll poses the question: “Does the government of China respect the personal freedoms of its people?” In 2015, the global median responses for “Yes” and “No” showed an 11-point spread (34 percent “Yes” and 45 percent “No”), compared to a four-point spread in 2014 (36 percent “Yes” and 40 percent “No”). Of the 35 countries surveyed in both years, 23 registered an increase in the percentage of “No” responses, while 15 tallied an increase in the percentage of “Yes” responses. (Some countries showed increases in both the “Yes” and “No” results.)

Between 2014 and 2015, the median percentage of people who said that the Chinese government does not respect the personal freedoms of its people increased in every geographic area surveyed.

"Does the government of China respect the personal freedoms of its people?"
(Median percentage saying "No" by region, 2014-2015)

Sources: Pew Research Center, Dui Hua

Attitudes towards China’s human rights record are particularly bad in Western Europe, North America, Northeast Asia, and Australia. In France, 93 percent replied that the Chinese government does not respect the personal freedoms of its citizens. In Germany 92 percent held that view, as did 88 percent in Spain. In the United States, the percentage of those who say that China does not respect the personal freedoms of its people rose steadily to 84 percent in 2015, from 71 percent in 2013, and 78 percent in 2014. Responses in the United Kingdom show a similar trend.

In Italy, South Korea, Japan, and Australia, eight in ten or more of respondents in 2015 indicated that China lacks respect for personal freedoms.

One of the biggest shifts in opinion took place in Turkey, where the percentage of those who said that China does not respect the personal freedoms of its people rose to 58 percent in 2015 from 38 percent in 2014.

While opinions towards China’s human rights record in Latin America turned largely negative, the Pew survey found a staggering 31 percentage point increase in the percentage of Chileans—from 20 percent in 2014 to 51 percent in 2015—who said that China does respect its people’s personal freedoms. Other countries that registered double-digit improvements in perceptions of China’s human rights record were Pakistan (up 13 points), the Philippines (up 11 points), and Nigeria (up 13 points).

One is left to speculate on why there has been such a sharp deterioration in China’s human rights image overall. In some countries, especially those engaged in territorial disputes with China, geopolitical factors might be at play. Countries with large Christian populations may have been affected by reports of church demolitions. In Turkey, China’s suppression of the economic, social, and cultural rights of Uyghurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim ethnic group of Xinjiang, has almost certainly played a role in the dramatic fall of China’s image. (Uyghur economist Ilham Tohti was sentenced to life in prison for splittism in September 2014, and protests over China’s treatment of Uyghurs erupted in Istanbul in early July 2015.) Countries that value the rule of law may have been repelled by the increase in the jailing and beating of lawyers and human rights defenders. Beijing’s refusal to show flexibility in its dealings with Hong Kong protesters over political reforms and the, at least initially, heavy-handed police response to the protests were widely reported. Foreign journalists in China, many of whom complain of their treatment at the hands of Chinese authorities, not surprisingly, focus on reporting negative stories.

On the other hand, the Chinese government’s effort to counter the country’s negative image has been feckless and episodic. Perhaps its biggest achievement in human rights in recent years is its sharp reduction in the number of executions. The government rarely highlights this feat, and when it does, omits specific figures, which it chooses to classify as state secrets.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

China: Women Prisoner Numbers Rise 10 Times Faster than Men

Women exercise in the yard at Henan Women's Prison. Image credit:
The number of women in prison in China surpassed 100,000 in 2013, continuing a decade-long trend of population growth for women prisoners far exceeding that of men. Between 2003 and 2014, the number of women incarcerated in Chinese prisons soared 46 percent, 10 times faster than growth for the population of incarcerated men. By comparison, the number of women in US prisons grew 15 percent over the period, about one and a half times faster than the growth rate for men. As of mid-2014, 103,766 women were serving sentences in Chinese prisons.

If current trends continue, China will imprison more women than the United States, often cited as the world’s largest jailer, within five years. Over the past decade, the number of incarcerated women has increased an average of 3 percent per year in Chinese prisons, compared with 1 percent growth in American prisons. Accounting for more than 100,000 prisoners in each country, women make up 6.3 percent and 7 percent of total prisoner populations in China and the United States, respectively.

Number of Women in Prison in China and United States, 2003-2021*

Sources: Dui Hua; China Statistical Yearbook; Asian and Pacific Conference of Corrections Administrators (APCCA); Carson, E. Ann and Mulako-Wangota, Joseph. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Generated using the Corrections Statistical Analysis Tool (CSAT) - Prisoners at (03-Jun-15).

Notes: Chinese prisoner data is as of the beginning of the year except for 2013 and 2014 data, which is mid-year. To allow for comparison, US prisoner data for each year is year-end data for the previous year. *Data from 2015-2021 is projected using historical data.

Women in Prison in China and United States, 2003-2014
Year China United States
Number % of Prison Population Number % of Prison Population
2003 71,286 4.6 95,137 6.7
2004 75,870 4.9 98,332 6.8
2005 77,279 5.0 101,972 7.0
2006 77,771 5.0 104,797 7.0
2007 78,334 5.0 109,257 7.1
2008 80,951 5.1 111,544 7.1
2009 85,167 5.2 112,136 7.1
2010 90,322 5.5 111,071 7.0
2011 93,051 5.6 110,478 7.0
2012 95,770 5.8 109,037 6.9
2013 100,584 5.9 106,279 6.9
2014 103,766 6.3 109,020 7.0
Sources: Dui Hua; China Statistical Yearbook; APCCA; Carson, E. Ann and Mulako-Wangota, Joseph. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Generated using the Corrections Statistical Analysis Tool (CSAT) - Prisoners at (03-Jun-15).

The number of women in prison refers to the number of women reported to be serving custodial sentences in Chinese and American prisons. It does not include the number of women and girls held in Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities, pre-trial detention, or juvenile facilities in the United States, or in detention centers, custody and education camps, legal education centers, mandatory drug treatment, or juvenile detention facilities in China. If all these data were included, the number of women and girls incarcerated in China would likely already exceed that of the United States.

Root Causes and Political Activism

Decisions to put women behind bars are made by prosecutors and courts, but women’s choices that lead to conflict with the law are often rooted in gender-based violence and poverty. A 2009 survey conducted by the All-China Women’s Federation indicates that domestic violence plays a role in more than half of crimes committed by Chinese women and that domestic violence causes 80 percent of the violent crimes they commit.

Demonstrating the importance of economic factors, drug- and property-related crimes were the most common offenses committed by women surveyed in five Chinese prisons and detention centers by researchers from Renmin University of China Law School in the summer of 2013. The researchers noted that the “vast majority” of women involved in drug crime, which includes possession, trafficking, and sheltering others to use drugs, is illiterate and relies on drug trafficking as its primary source of income. Property crime, which includes theft, fraud, illegal fundraising, and extortion, was most prevalent among low-wage earners in developed cities in eastern China.

Crackdowns on civil and political rights also contribute to an uptick in the number of women in prison. Women account for at least a quarter of people in custody who are listed in Dui Hua’s Political Prisoner Database. About 37 percent of prisoners of conscience involved in religious activities (including Falun Gong) are women, as are about 20 percent of petitioners.

China's Women Prisoners by Selected Crime Type

Source: Dui Hua; Cheng Lei, et al., “Research Report on the Treatment of Women Detainees in China.” Note: Percentages do not add up to 100, since researchers do not account for all crime types but focus instead on these five categories. There is also significant overlap between "non-violent" crime and all other listed crime types.


Perhaps not surprisingly, overcrowding is already a serious problem in women’s prisons in the United States and China. China has built six women’s prisons since 2003. Two of these were built after 2007, during the period when China experienced the most dramatic growth in its population of women prisoners. If China distributed women inmates evenly between its 36 women’s prisons, each would house 2,882 inmates, a figure 14 percent higher than for men incarcerated at China’s 614 men’s prisons. Some Chinese women’s prisons far exceed this average. Guangdong Women’s Prison, for example, opened in 2003 with a capacity of about 5,000 prisoners. That said, building prisons neither reduces the social and financial costs of incarceration nor addresses the root causes women’s conflict with the law.

Doing Women Justice: The Bangkok Rules

The large and growing population of women in prison in China, the United States, and worldwide makes attention to and implementation of the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders (the Bangkok Rules) all the more urgent. These rules provide a framework for improving conditions for women in prison by taking into account the fact that women in conflict with the law are more likely to have histories of abuse and different healthcare needs and child-rearing duties than men.

The Bangkok Rules also provide guidance on increasing the use of non-custodial measures to keep women out of prison in the first place. Since most women do not commit violent crimes or commit them in response to gender-based violence that was perpetrated against them, imprisonment is often disproportionate and unnecessary. It also carries with it the risk of further gender-based harassment and abuse.