Thursday, June 28, 2012

He Weifang: Legal Reform, Resolve, and Lawyers (Part I of III)

Renowned legal scholar and Peking University Professor He Weifang discussing
legal reforms. Photo credit: China Business View
There is perhaps no better example of a public intellectual in China than He Weifang (贺卫方), professor of law at Peking University Law School and avid promoter of legal reform and judicial independence. Since 1998, when Southern Weekly published his article entitled “Ex-Servicemen Enter the Court,” He has been well-known for his insightful combination of legal analysis and criticism of contemporary social and political issues. Unabashedly liberal, his positions on legal reform have been under attack in recent years from those who believe that China should forsake foreign models of legal development and pursue its own path toward rule of law that considers “national circumstances.” In a recent interview with Xi’an newspaper China Business View, He responds by stating that reform is about changing national circumstances. In part one of a three-part translation of this interview, He discusses the importance of pursuing legal reform as a proxy for political reform and urges a return to professionalization within the legal system.

Reform Itself Changes National Circumstances [Excerpt]
China Business View, May 19, 2012
Interview with He Weifang

Multilateral Consensus on Reform Clearest in 1980s

China Business View (CBV): People conventionally treat 1978 as a turning point in China’s rule of law. How do you evaluate the past 30-plus years of China’s rule-of-law construction?

He Weifang: In the exactly 30 years from 1949 until 1979, this country produced only a constitution and a Marriage Law. After 1979, we began to enact a series of laws. This period of legal-system construction is inextricably linked to the “bitterness of lawlessness” that national leaders like Deng Xiaoping and Peng Zhen experienced during the “Cultural Revolution.” You can say that during the reforms of the 1980s the consensus formed at all levels [of society] was clearest because everyone at the time felt that the “Cultural Revolution” needed to be left behind. So, in 1979 we enacted a Criminal Law and Criminal Procedure Law, in 1987 we had the General Principles of Civil Law, and in 1989 we had the Administrative Litigation Law. These were all terrific milestones. By the early 1990s, we had a few years of initial hesitation, but after Deng Xiaoping’s speeches during his 1992 Southern Tour, it was made clear that [China] would follow the path of socialist market economy. And in order to build a market economy, executive power needed to withdraw from the market, and another kind of power was needed in order to adapt to the current situation and that was judicial power. And so, at that time there was a resounding slogan: “The market economy is a rule-of-law economy.” However, over time, [the system of] norms became more and more complete but enforcement was very disappointing. If you look for the reason, you’ll find that we once believed that enacting a law was enough to guarantee its implementation, but it actually is not the case. This is a situation of concern to the present day.

CBV: What’s the solution? What needs to be done to establish a rule-of-law society?

He: Everyone came to recognize that the problem of building a rule-of-law society cannot be solved without good legal institutions, so we began legal reforms. During that period, I personally threw myself into study of contemporary legal systems and promotion of reforms. Suddenly, 20 years has gone by. When I look back, legal reform was extremely active during the first decade and there was a relatively clear consensus about values: namely, that it was necessary to raise the quality of legal personnel, to raise consciousness of procedure, to reform litigation models in order to have fairer dispute resolutions, and that the law should not be applied within a black box. At that time, the Supreme People’s Court also called for judicial decisions to explain their reasoning. During this process, the academic community commonly believed that legal reform might be a good angle [from which to pursue] reform of the political system.

CBV: Reform must involve top-level design. Why did you think that reform of the legal system would be easier?

He: I once wrote an article arguing that legal reform was potentially a way of achieving benefits at very little cost. For example, by raising the quality of judges, reforming the financial and personnel systems [of the courts], and separating judicial and executive [powers], it would ultimately [serve] to continuously improve judicial authority and continuously increase the level of fairness. In this way, through the resolution of judicial problems, we could ultimately realize reform of the political system. Actually, as I see it, politics is nothing more than a problem of the arrangement of authority and rights. Politics is [a question of] what kind of power we obey and what kind of power can shape stronger social relations. If people increasingly feel that you need to rely on true administration of justice, that other power is not important as long as there are fair courts, and that you go to court when you have a dispute, then that would be following a very good path. But looking at this now, that path is becoming narrower and narrower.

CBV: What's the Problem?

He: Unless we resolve the basic problem of judicial independence, then it will be impossible to improve judicial fairness. On the other hand: the legal system itself wants to solve the problem of fairness, but this internal force cannot overcome external interference. So, at that time ordinary people were seriously “deceived” by legal scholars. Readers welcomed media reports on major cases and analysis of cases, but the overall level of fairness in society has not improved and public trust in the legal system has not increased. So, the public felt a bit tricked, and in legal circles there were those who began to feel the need to go back and resort to the rule of man—like we needed a good leader with abundant kindness and insight and far-reaching power.

Just like that, the status of law began to decline and legal reform continually ran into obstacles. On the one hand, the initiative for reform by institutions of power grew weaker. In some places, one felt that there were indications that [these institutions] wanted to get rid of the system of checks and balances between public security, procuratorates, and courts and use the kind of non-adjudicative model of “establishing special case units”—and all of this was practically being done out in the open. We truly need to reflect on which direction society needs to go. In the course of reflecting on this, we naturally need to consider the direction of rule-of-law construction and legal reform, both of which are components of political reform.

Judges Should Only Express Themselves to Society Through Judgments


CBV: Everyone knows you’re a firm supporter of judicial professionalization and advocate for judicial meritocracy. How do you think professionalization of the judicial system can be realized?

He: So-called judicial professionalism, or professionalization, should be realized in several respects. For example, we should really treat judicial power as a special kind of power, one different from executive or legislative power. First of all, those who exercise this power should possess good specialized training and excellent abilities in legal thinking and analysis, as well as an ability to use the law to respond to society’s needs. Second, we should make efforts to have judicial power be able to operate independently. This not only means that courts should be independent from external interference, but also that there should be internal regulations to ensure the independence of each judge. That’s the time to look at the way that power operates inside courts and how the power framework ought to be designed.

CBV: How do you think we should understand the role of judges? In the real world, judges have many complaints about their own role, and there is widespread public dissatisfaction with judges.

He: It’s particularly important [to figure out] how to prevent officials from interfering in the exercise of power by ordinary judges within courts. Reform must bring about a better unity between court power and responsibilities. Judges deciding a case cannot be allowed to say: “Actually, it wasn’t I who decided this case. Even though my name’s [on the decision], it really doesn’t have much to do with me.” There are currently too many cases like this, where those who try the case don’t make the decisions and those who make the decisions don’t try the case. Authority must be attributed more clearly. Only if we do this can we pursue judicial responsibility. Next, we need to construct ways to professionalize how court power is exercised. When judges sit in judgment of a case, the result must be based on evidence and theoretical argumentation. That is, a suit must be about the evidence and about [legal] theory. Only through this kind of outcome where the facts naturally become clear can we minimize to the greatest extent the possibility of judicial decisions being criticized. Even parties who lose their cases will accept the decisions because they’ll believe [they lost] because their evidence wasn’t strong enough. Moreover, this kind of professionalism also must be expressed through independent decision-making in the relationship between higher and lower courts. If higher courts participate in specific adjudication work of lower courts, then the appellate system is useless.


CBV: The public worries that if judges are independent in the current environment they will make even more trouble.

He: Of course we all worry about the problem of judges’ professional ethics. What sort of person or behavior can pass [for a] judge? In a rule-of-law country, one with rigorous judicial professionalism, professional ethics demand that judges cannot interact unilaterally with one party in a case, even if it doesn’t involve economic bribery. These days we have judges who like to go to the media and speak freely about why they decided a case in a certain way. This is extremely out of line with judges’ professional ethics because anything that judges have to say to society should be said through their decisions; aside from this, they should not use the mass media to comment on cases. If this would gradually become the standard, this would also be a direction for judicial professionalism. In some western countries, there are thick books on judges’ professional ethics that tell you very clearly how power should be exercised. If we could truly achieve independent adjudication of cases and the name of the judge on the decision were the same person who made the actual decisions about the case, that would mean that there would be no way for judges of record to evade responsibility when miscarriages of justice were discovered—their names would forever be linked to that miscarriage of justice and the [associated] shame. “The wild goose leaves behind its cry, while a man leaves behind his name.” What judge would want to leave behind such a bad reputation?

CBV: But, in order to prevent miscarriages of justice and wrongly decided cases, some local courts have put forth a system of lifetime responsibility for judges, something that seems to have gotten a favorable response from a segment of the public. What’s your opinion?

He: I am firmly opposed to these so-called “reforms” that masquerade as professionalization. I wrote an article entitled “Legal Reform Must Proceed According to Legal Principle.” It seems that over the past eight or nine years we’ve seen a number of anti-professional “legal reforms,” and the more they tinker, the more varieties there are. When the public hears about this lifetime responsibility system for judges, they think it’s great. But they don’t realize that under the backdrop of the current [system], the more vigorously you pursue [responsibility], the more people form a conspiracy of silence and mistakes don’t get remedied. In the end, the victim is still the public.

Related Links
  • He Weifang: Legal Reform, Resolve, and Lawyers Part II of III
  • He Weifang: Legal Reform, Resolve, and Lawyers Part III of III

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Court Promises Death to Quell Petitions

On August 2, 2001, a 13-year-old girl surnamed Guo was raped and murdered on the banks of the Sha River in central Henan Province while gathering cicada nymphs for sale. Several days later, police in Ye County detained a local man, Li Huailiang, who that same day had been seen in the same area collecting the same insects. Two years passed before the case went to trial.

At trial, Li proclaimed his innocence and recanted an earlier confession that he alleged had been coerced through torture. Nevertheless, the Ye County People’s Court found him guilty and sentenced him to 15 years in prison. Neither the defendant nor the victim’s family was satisfied with the verdict, so an appeal was made to the Pingdingshan Intermediate People’s Court, which rejected the verdict on the grounds of “unclear facts and insufficient evidence” and sent the case back to Ye County for retrial.

Although a new trial was held, the Ye County court never issued a new decision. Instead, the case was retried in first instance by the Pingdingshan Intermediate People’s Court, which convicted Li Huailiang and sentenced him to death in August 2004. Still insisting on his innocence, Li again appealed to the provincial high court, which once again rejected the verdict on the grounds of “unclear facts and insufficient evidence.” The Pingdingshan court retried the case in April 2006 and handed down a death sentence with two-year reprieve, but this, too, was rejected by the provincial court on appeal.

The death penalty guarantee on letterhead of
the Pingdingshan Intermediate People's Court
signed by the victim's parents and witnesses.
Source: China Comment
Since September 2006, there have been no further court hearings, and Li Huailiang has remained in the local detention center for nearly 11 years with his legal fate still uncertain. About the only thing that has been made clear in the course of the case is that the evidence against Li is flimsy. According to Li’s sister, blood and sperm samples recovered from the crime scene don’t correspond to Li and footprints don’t match up, either.

Li Huailiang’s legal limbo may come to an end soon, however, after a document from his case file was leaked online earlier this year. The handwritten document, entitled “Letter of Guarantee,” appears on stationary of the Pingdingshan Intermediate People’s Court and is signed by the parents of the murdered girl. In it, they request that the court “sentence Li Huailiang to life imprisonment or, even better, death” and “guarantee” that were the court to do so, they would accept the verdict and stop petitioning about the case—even if the court’s verdict were later rejected by a higher court on appeal. Not long after the victim’s parents submitted their “guarantee,” the court issued its death sentence.

Media Coverage

Investigative journalists working for Guangdong newspapers began reporting on this story in February 2012, but the story did not gain much traction. The timing was certainly inconvenient, from the perspective of the authorities who decide what stories may and may not be reported in China’s media. The annual plenary session of the National People’s Congress was set to open in a matter of days after the story first broke, and one of the main topics for discussion was proposed revision of the Criminal Procedure Law. Perhaps this explains why the case disappeared from public view for several months.

But the scandalous story of the “death sentence guarantee” is now back, and it has an even brighter spotlight shining upon it. On June 6, the case was reported again in China Comment, a semi-monthly publication of the Xinhua News Agency with close links to the Central Publicity Department of the Communist Party. Then on June 12, China Comment followed up with a new report citing internal court documents that appear to show that the “guarantee” had been written after discussions with the then-president of the Pingdingshan Intermediate People’s Court, Zhao Mingzhang, and agreed to by a deputy secretary of the local politico-legal committee. The whistleblower responsible for leaking the documents reportedly gave them to China Comment in hopes that the case would get the attention of central party leaders who might intervene and bring resolution to the case.

The day before these latest revelations, on June 11, a Guangzhou lawyer named Geng Shuang (耿爽) published a sharp critique of the case (translated below) in Southern Metropolis Daily. Though Geng is critical of officials at the Pingdingshan court for placing considerations of stability above basic principles of legal procedure and fairness, she recognizes that cases like these are not isolated but, rather, are systemic in nature. When pressure is put on judges and court officials to make decisions that will not lead to petitioning or other potentially destabilizing activity, courts risk straying from the ideals of independent and objective adjudication. Focusing on rule of law and justice is a better path to long-term stability, she concludes, because it reinforces public trust in the judicial system, instead of destroying it.


Ridiculous “Death Sentence Guarantee” Devalues Public Trust in the Judicial Process
Geng Shuang
Southern Metropolis Daily
June 11, 2012

According to a report in the June 6 edition of China Comment magazine, the Pingdingshan Intermediate People’s Court in Henan Province, in order to prevent the relatives of a victim in a murder case from petitioning, actually “promised” to sentence the suspect in that case to death. Even though the verdict was rejected by the Henan High People’s Court because of insufficient evidence, the suspect continues to remain locked up in a detention center, held beyond legal time limits for more than 10 years.

Thereafter, the Pingdingshan Intermediate People’s Court issued a statement via weibo [a Twitter-like service] to deny the report, saying that from the content of the “letter of guarantee” one could see that it was a letter of request by the victim’s relatives, not an agreement, and that no person from the court had signed it.

Looking back at the case, on the evening of August 2, 2001, the body of Guo Xia [This is identified as a pseudonym in the original source—Trans.], a villager from Wanli Village, Ye County, Henan, was found dumped in a river. Li Huailiang, from the same village, was arrested on suspicion of intentional homicide. A total of seven trials were held and three verdicts annulled because of insufficient evidence. During the trial, the victim’s mother Du Yuhua demanded severe punishment for the “murderer,” lest she go to the [top of the] court building and jump. This is the origin of the so-called death sentence guarantee or application.

As a legal professional, I am deeply shocked by seeing this kind of ridiculous incident that goes against the spirit of the law—even though this is not the first time. This letter of guarantee or application was a promise or appeal made to the court by the victim’s relatives, and the Pingdingshan intermediate court admits that it was a promise by a single party and not a two-party agreement. Be that as it may, this guarantee is neither evidence used to weigh the facts [in the case] nor legal statute to determine guilt or assign a penalty. So how did it end up in the case file? No matter what explanation is given by the court involved, the answer is all too clear: this is a guarantee against petitioning demanded by the court of the victim’s relatives. What sort of mindset did the court have in demanding that the victim’s relatives make this kind of guarantee? Actually, the court is truly helpless, because if it doesn’t prevent victims’ families from petitioning, court officials will have a hard time keeping their jobs.

In this case, the court has been kidnapped—and, at a deeper level, that means the judicial system has been kidnapped—by the petitioning system. And once the judicial system has been kidnapped, the natural balance of the law inevitably becomes imbalanced. In this case, specifically, this sort of kidnapping resulted in two clear errors by the Pingdingshan intermediate court:

The first error was to violate a basic principle of adjudication in China: “taking facts as the basis and the law as criterion.”

If a suspect is sentenced to death without conclusive evidence, this means that every day each of us has the potential to become a murderer. But the Pingdingshan intermediate court was able to get a party to the case to write the following letter of guarantee and openly included it in the case file: If the suspect can be sentenced to life imprisonment or above, preferably the death sentence, then [we] guarantee not to petition any more. This ridiculous “death sentence guarantee” obviously resulted from the victim’s relatives’ continuous petitioning and judicial personnel going beyond the law to take “calming petitions” and “maintaining stability” into consideration. With the law no longer the sole criterion, the case was artificially made more complex.

In fact, more than two months after the relative signed the letter of guarantee, the Pingdingshan Intermediate People’s Court did, in fact, sentence the suspect to death. Considering that a higher court subsequently annulled the death sentence based on insufficient evidence, it is clear that the death sentence in this case was imposed without enough evidence and that the primary factor of consideration at the time of sentencing was not only “taking facts as the basis and the law as criterion” but, rather, preventing the victim’s relatives from further petitioning.

The second error was to violate the basic principle of the presumption of innocence in criminal cases.

Since revision of the Criminal Procedure Law in 1996, the presumption of innocence has become clear in the law. Presumption of innocence means that an acquittal must be made if there is insufficient evidence to prove the existence of a crime. An example of the presumption of innocence is the ultimate acquittal in America’s famous trial of the century, the [O.J.] “Simpson case.”

In this case against criminal suspect Li Huailiang, multiple findings of insufficient evidence should have meant his acquittal and release long ago, but to this day he has been in custody for more than 10 years. The court, which specializes in adjudication, surely understands the concept of presumption of innocence, but this case has become a hot potato precisely because everyone is clear that Li should have been acquitted and released long ago. The moment he is acquitted, huge amounts of state compensation will be involved, and this case could become the “sequel to the Zhao Zuohai case.” And whether the court acquits, the procuratorate retracts its indictment, or the public security organ drops the case, it will involve the assignment of responsibility to legal institutions and concerned officials—and no one wants to take on that responsibility. [This has] caused the case to become a ball, being kicked around by each institution for more than a decade.

Although the court’s errors are obvious, if you look farther behind these errors you see that in requiring the victim’s relatives to sign a “death sentence guarantee,” the court appears to be trying to “calm petitions.” But, in fact, their actions are counterproductive and do more harm than good. When the court, sitting beneath the national emblem and armed with the scales [of justice], itself strays from the law and makes a party to a case sign an extralegal guarantee (or, if you like, application) in order to “calm petitions,” it might allow a small group or individual officials to avoid risk, but it sacrifices rule of law and devalues public trust in the judicial process. (The author is a lawyer in Guangzhou.)