Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Behind the Rarity of China's Acquittals

Image credit: 163.com

Acquittals are rare in China. The most recent China Law Yearbook, an official compendium, states that for every 10,000 people tried in criminal courts in 2013, just seven were acquitted. Although the number of people found not guilty rose incrementally in 2013, it plummeted from 6,617 to 727 per year between 2000 and 2012. Meanwhile the number of people whose cases were adjudicated trended upward, causing acquittals to account for just 0.07 percent of completed trials in 2013, falling from 1.02 percent in 2000. In comparison to China, Japan and Russia acquit less than 1 percent of defendants, while the Department of Justice reports that since 2001, the United States has convicted more than 90 percent of defendants each year.

Adjudications and acquittals for defendants in criminal trials, 2000-2013
Year Adjudications Acquittals % Acquitted
2000 648725* 6617 1.02
2001 740000* 6597 0.89
2002 706707 4935 0.70
2003 747096 4835 0.65
2004 767951 2292 0.30
2005 844717 2162 0.26
2006 890755 1713 0.19
2007 933156 1417 0.15
2008 1008677 1373 0.14
2009 997872 1206 0.12
2010 1007419 999 0.10
2011 1051638 891 0.08
2012 1174133 727 0.06
2013 1158609 825 0.07
* Dui Hua estimates
Sources: Dui Hua, China Law Yearbook

China Law Yearbook does not typically disaggregate acquittal data by crime, but in select years it has provided the number of people found not guilty in trials for endangering state security (ESS) and dereliction of military duty. (Dui Hua research indicates that ESS accounts for the vast majority of cases when these two crime categories are combined.) In 2002, only one of the 366 people tried in these types of cases was acquitted, while in 2004, there were five in 336. None of the 730 individuals tried for ESS with records in Dui Hua’s Political Prisoner Database was found not guilty.

Indirectly addressing the paucity of acquittals as part of judicial reform efforts, the Central Politico-Legal Committee (PLC) announced its decision on January 20, 2015, to remove indictment and conviction rates from the list of performance indicators applied to judicial officials. While this should reduce pressure to convict, the number of not-guilty verdicts will continue to be influenced by efforts to avoid the payment of state compensation, marginalize defense attorneys, restrict judicial independence, and maintain stability, among others.


Chinese prosecutors tend to explain low acquittal rates as an indicator of good work. In 2012, a Beijing prosecutor told Legal Daily that a high level of “judicial precision” allowed good prosecutors to “filter out” cases likely to result in acquittal so that the majority of people standing trial were “guilty.” A Guangdong High People’s Court judge reiterated this sentiment by telling the paper that, “The reduction in acquittals, to a very large extent, is a manifestation of increasing awareness about evidence and law in our investigative and prosecutorial units.”

For prosecutors, acquittals signify failure to demonstrate guilt, and at least prior to the implementation of the PLC decision, they have a direct negative impact on performance evaluations. In 2005, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP) issued evaluation measures stating that acquittal rates should not exceed 0.2 percent. Local procuratorates followed suit by putting forth “zero acquittals” as the ultimate goal in their annual work reports. Among various performance indicators, the acquittal rate was the most important, legal scholar Yuan Yicheng told Legal Daily in 2012.

Rather than risk acquittal, it is an unspoken rule that prosecutors decide to withdraw indictments. The procuratorate may formally drop the charges against a criminal suspect or remand a case for supplementary investigation, both with the approval of the court. If additional investigation is conducted, a suspect may be unable to fully regain their personal freedom during that time. By deciding not to pursue charges, prosecutors not only reduce acquittals but also dodge legal repercussions, since people without not-guilty verdicts face barriers to filing complaints against or winning compensation from government bureaus that wrongfully deprive them of their personal freedom.

Called a “black-box operation” by Xiaoxiang Morning Post, indictment withdrawals are not covered by the Criminal Procedure Law. Instead they are outlined in judicial interpretations and opinions issued by the SPP and Supreme People’s Court (SPC). After conducting a study on the use of the practice between 2003 and 2005, the SPP reported finding numerous problems, according to legal scholar Gao Tong. These problems included prosecutors opting to withdraw indictments in instances where they feared the defendant would be found not guilty and laxity in carrying out legal oversight. The SPP’s 2005 evaluation measures state that decisions not to pursue charges should occur in less than 0.8 percent of cases, four times the target for acquittals.

Indictment withdrawals are not uncommon in political cases. In Gansu, Chen Pingfu (陈平福) was placed under residential surveillance in June 2012 for writing dozens of blog posts about the social injustices he experienced as a laid-off teacher, petitioner, and street performer. Chen was formally arrested for inciting subversion in August, but following an outpouring of public support for his release, his indictment was withdrawn on December 14, 2012. Chen’s defense lawyer claimed that he never saw the prosecutors’ application for withdrawal and was not informed of the basis for withdrawing the indictment. In a separate case, the Beijing People’s Procuratorate decided not to pursue charges against Wang Gongquan (王功权) on January 21, 2015. The prominent businessman was a cofounder, along with Xu Zhiyong (许志永), of the New Citizens’ Movement, which advocates for education for migrant children and transparency in the assets of government officials. The withdrawal followed a televised confession Wang made in December 2013 and his release on bail in January 2014.


Prosecutors issue indictments, but it is the courts that hand down convictions. Because convictions are the primary basis upon which their promotions are decided, “prosecutors need to run daily to the courts to beg [judges] not to hand down acquittals,” according to a mid-ranking prosecutor cited in an article published in Contemporary Law Review by legal scholar Zhu Tonghui. Painting a picture of insufficient checks and balances within the judiciary, Zhu notes that judges tend to approve most indictment withdrawals in part because they are aware of the adverse impact acquittals have on prosecutors. Courts and procuratorates tend to work together to rule out the possibility of not-guilty verdicts, according to an article published in the Journal of Hubei Correspondence University in 2014.

Like prosecutors, judges see convictions as a means to career advancement, but they also see them as tools for maintaining stability. Judges worry that finding defendants not guilty causes an uptick in petitioning because victims’ family members may feel that the judiciary failed to deliver justice and punish the real culprits, the SPC Research Office wrote in 2014. Acquittals in appellate trials are equally undesirable because higher-level courts do not want the public to view lower-court verdicts as “wrongful,” said Yuan Yicheng. Gao Tong says that acquittals often spark fierce public sentiments, where judges are denounced as “corrupt” or “abusing power.”

Some legal experts believe that courts reconcile unfounded guilty verdicts by issuing light or suspended sentences or exempting defendants from criminal punishment. China Law Yearbook shows that the percentage of convicted persons who were exempt from criminal punishment remained relatively stable around 1.67 percent from 2003 through 2013, however, the number of people receiving suspended sentences increased annually, going from 18.47 percent in 2003 to 30.78 percent in 2013. Critics argue that a portion of these exemptions and suspensions represent people who should have been acquitted.

Defense lawyers

Within the Chinese criminal justice system, defendants have little support. In 2012, former All China Lawyers Association president Yu Ning publicly stated that defense lawyers participated in fewer than 30 percent of all criminal cases nationwide with participation as low as 12 percent in some provinces. Defense lawyers face political and professional retaliation for performing their duties, and are often barred from routine activities such as meeting with their clients and obtaining case documents from police, prosecutors, and judges. The challenges facing defense lawyers are widely documented.

Stability maintenance

The decision of guilt or innocence is beyond the courts when the PLC intervenes in cases deemed to have far-reaching consequences for social or political stability. In these “stability maintenance” interventions, the PLC encourages coordination between courts, procuratorates, and police. China Youth Daily reported on this type of intervention in January 2014. In this instance, the local PLC in Gushi County, Henan Province, issued a “red-head document” requesting that the county court convict Wu Yunqiang (吴运强) on the grounds that an acquittal would lead to “negative social consequences” and “render local land-administration regulations useless.” The county accused Wu of illegal land use in early 2009 after he sold his kindergarten in Zhongshan, Guangdong Province. Wu was convicted and given a suspended sentence in November 2011, but two years later the Xinyang Intermediate People’s Court overturned the verdict and ordered a retrial due to insufficient evidence. The procuratorate then formally withdrew the indictment in December 2013. However, due in large part to PLC intervention, Wu was re-indicted. In October 2014 he was sentenced to three years in prison for illegal transfer of land-use rights despite the fact that the procuratorate reportedly failed to present new evidence to substantiate his guilt.

Policies to manipulate verdicts based upon their social and political outcome undermine judicial independence and justice itself. During a speech at the National Prosecutors’ College in August 2014, SPP Procurator-General Cao Jianming acknowledged the prevention of wrongful convictions as the biggest challenge for prosecutors and urged judicial officials to hold on to the presumption of innocence. Coordinated or not, as wrongful convictions continue to be exposed by Chinese news media, it is increasingly difficult to view China’s acquittal rate as simply good work.