Friday, March 6, 2009

Discussion of 60th Anniversary Special Pardon Intensifies in China

In recent weeks, the official Chinese media has covered the issue of a special pardon to celebrate the PRC’s 60th anniversary, with opinions of prominent academics and legal professionals appearing in many publications. Dui Hua has generated attention on the proposal since early this year, featuring it in the Winter 2009 issue of the Dialogue newsletter and in postings in the Human Rights Journal, and will continue to track official discussion on the topic. The following summarizes and provides context for some views on the “anniversary special pardon” published in China since mid-February, with links to referenced Chinese-language articles.

The anniversary pardon proposal recently gained widespread attention in China when an interview with Gao Mingxuan (高铭暄), a professor at Renmin University and preeminent legal scholar and pioneer in the field of Chinese law, was published on February 16 in the Yangcheng Evening Post (羊城晚报). This occurred soon after a convicted murderer in Suizhou in Hubei Province had been sentenced to death and then appealed for clemency based on the principles of a special pardon, an incident which stimulated tremendous debate. Assuring he did not consider that particular case as commensurate with such a pardon, Prof. Gao stressed that special pardons should not be issued indiscriminately for prisoners who show no remorse or still pose threats to society, but instead can be implemented under proper conditions, such as in recognition of prisoner reform and for national anniversaries.

Gao also emphasized that special pardons have a role in promoting “harmony,” a central ideal of current Chinese leaders, and commented on its rehabilitative benefits for individuals and society. In his remarks, he likened the reform and pardoning of prisoners to the treatment of people with serious illnesses who should be hospitalized and then released once their health is restored.

Other legal scholars and members of the general public have since expressed strong opinions on the proposal. The many responses in favor of an anniversary pardon have underscored its humanitarian nature, precedents that exist in Chinese history, and the legal provisions of pardons set forth in Articles 67 and 80 of China’s constitution. For voices opposed, principal concerns have been how China can implement pardons while avoiding corruption of the process, the lack of clear procedures for implementing pardons, and whether public safety would be jeopardized by a large-scale release of prisoners.

The China Youth Daily (中国青年报) published a response supportive of Prof. Gao’s call. The article urged that the proposal be taken seriously as a policy with a sound basis in both Chinese law and common sense, and argued that punishment and reform of prisoners have been complementary elements throughout Chinese history.

In a February 18 article in the Chinese Commercial Daily (华商报), Jia Yu (贾宇), a scholar from the Northwest University of Political Science and Law, repeated a sentiment often voiced by special pardon supporters: Pardons demonstrate the confidence and tolerance of a powerful country and reflect the political stability, national prosperity, and social environment of today’s China. Still, Prof. Jia was skeptical that there would be support for pardoning prisoners convicted of “endangering state security” or economic crimes due to the serious nature of the offenses. He further suggested that pardons should not be determined based on crime categories. Jia indicated that an option could be to consider pardons for common criminals who receive light prison sentences and those with less than three years left to serve in prison.

Not all intellectuals, however, have been in favor of the special pardon. In a February 25 interview published in Southern Weekend (南方周末) responding to Prof. Gao, criminal law expert Zhou Guangquan (周光权), who is a member of the National People’s Congress Law Committee and vice dean of Qinghua University’s School of Law, spoke out against the proposal, reasoning that conditions for a special pardon are not appropriate this year.

Zhou made four main points against the special pardon: 1) A pardon could influence China’s criminal law and judicial authority, as people now put their faith in the judicial system to appropriately punish criminals; 2) institutions are not in place to reintegrate pardon recipients back into society and professional life, since the prisoners themselves may not have been reformed; 3) many crimes involve victims who have been harmed but gone uncompensated for their injuries, so releasing prisoners might lead to direct conflicts between criminals and their victims and give rise to new social unrest; and 4) a special pardon might undermine already tenuous social stability, which Zhou pointed out is a concern harbored by the general public, and one that is not without merit.

In reality, attitudes among the general Chinese public about an anniversary special pardon are hard to ascertain. Amid the coverage in the Chinese press have been online surveys, however unscientific, that suggest a substantial number of common citizens may support the idea of a special pardon this year. (A poll showed in early March, after nearly 50,000 “votes” had been tallied, the numbers of supporters and opponents of the pardon proposal were nearly identical.) While definite conclusions cannot be drawn from this kind of polling, the mere existence of surveys—and the growing coverage in official media—clearly demonstrates that the idea of an anniversary special pardon is being considered by Chinese citizens and heard among high-level Chinese leadership.