Just before last September’s 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC) passed a decision—subsequently issued by President Xi Jinping—to grant a special pardon (teshe) to selected prisoners. Xinhua reported last week that the government pardoned 31,527 people during 2015. The total number of pardons exceeded estimates by members of the NPC Legal Committee more than threefold.
Ninety-five percent of recipients were under age 18 at the time of their offense and either sentenced to fewer than three years in prison or had less than one year left to serve for a non-serious crime. Three other groups of prisoners also benefited following rigorous review. Fifty veterans of the War of Resistance Against Japan (World War II) and the War of Liberation (the Chinese Civil War) were pardoned, as were 1,428 veterans of foreign wars who were not convicted of serious crimes and 122 non-self-sufficient disabled elderly prisoners (over age 75).
2015 Special Pardon Recipients by Category
The 2015 special pardon was the first since 1975 and the first ever to include a more general prison population. Chairman Mao Zedong granted all previous special pardons to war criminals (zhanfan). China’s Constitution grants the authority to decide on special pardons to the NPC Standing Committee (Article 67), while reserving the authority to issue orders for special pardons to the president (Article 80).
|Dec 4, 1959||12,115||Counterrevolutionaries & ordinary criminal offenders (12,082); war criminals (33), incl. Emperor Puyi|
|Nov 28, 1960||50||War criminals: Kuomintang (45), Manchukuo (4), Mengkukuo (1)|
|Dec 25, 1961||68||War criminals: Kuomintang (61), Manchukuo (7)|
|Apr 9, 1963||35||War criminals: Kuomintang (30), Manchukuo (4), Mengkukuo (1)|
|Dec 28, 1964||53||War criminals: Kuomintang (45), Manchukuo (7), Mengkukuo (1)|
|Apr 16, 1966||57||War criminals: Kuomintang (52), Manchukuo (4), Mengkukuo (1)|
|Mar 19, 1975||293||War criminals: all remaining|
|Aug 29, 2015||31,527||Juvenile offenders, veterans, disabled elders|
Local government officials moved quickly to begin implementation shortly after the central government announced the special pardon. In Hebei, the provincial politico-legal committee held a teleconference days after the announcement to study the NPC decision and the implementation measures drafted by the Central Politico-Legal Committee. Representatives from provincial courts, procuratorates, and public security and justice agencies attended the meeting that led to the establishment of special teams and working groups. Provincial prisons, detention centers, and community corrections organizations specified the scope, conditions, and procedure of the special pardon in accordance with the NPC decision.
Although pardons are typically decided on a case-by-case basis, special pardons pave the way for many individuals to benefit at once. Different from an amnesty, a pardon amends a punishment without affecting a guilty verdict. Amnesties remove the offense from a person’s criminal record.
Public response to the 2015 pardon was lukewarm at best. Chinese legal scholars opined that too few would benefit, while the public took to Chinese social media to criticize the pardons for being too lenient. Dui Hua previously called on China to grant special pardons ahead of the 2008 Summer Olympics and the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 2009.
Having worked closely on juvenile justice reforms with the Supreme People’s Court Office of Juvenile Courts, Dui Hua welcomes the special pardon as a pathway to justice for youth in conflict with the law.
“Having successfully carried out the largest special pardon in the history of the People’s Republic of China, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress should consider issuing special pardons to other groups of prisoners,” said John Kamm, executive director of The Dui Hua Foundation. “Prisoners serving sentences for crimes that no longer appear in the Criminal Law—like counterrevolution and hooliganism, which haven’t been on the books for nearly 20 years—should be prime candidates for clemency. Doing so would support China’s constitution, the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (Article 15, Paragraph One), and the rule of law.”