Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Public Sentencing Rallies during the Pandemic

Three Chinese nationals were executed in a public sentencing rally in Wa State, a Chinese-speaking region in Northern Myanmar on May 14, 2020. Image credit: The Paper 

In May 2020, a video clip featuring the execution of three men in a public sentencing rally in Wa State of Myanmar became a trending topic on domestic social media. The three executed men were Chinese nationals who had reportedly robbed a gold shop and murdered the owner. While calling on the public to obey laws and customs overseas, Chinese news media sources appear to have expressed shock that the shaming ritual was replicated in Myanmar even though it has “long vanished in China.” 

Historically, public sentencing rallies were widely used in and outside China to crush political opponents and consolidate the power of the ruling class. In the first three decades of the People’s Republic of China, mass rallies served to educate the public about the errors of class enemies, including Kuomintang members and landlords. 

While there are signs that these rallies have fallen into disuse in recent years, they continue to take place in some localities where they target drug offenders and members of organized crime. In these rallies, which continue to serve as propaganda to “frighten criminals, educate people, and maintain social stability,” judges hand out mass sentencing and mete out harsh punishments, including death sentences. Because of the nationwide lockdowns and stringent social distancing measures accompanying China’s zero-COVID policy in the two full years since 2020, the rallies that are typically held in large public venues like plazas, stadiums, and auditoriums in front of crowds numbering in the thousands seemingly vanished from public sight. 

However, Chinese government sources continued to report on small rallies that have been convened. Many of these rallies appeared no different from regular court trials when they were held indoors or virtually with no or limited public attendance. Regardless of the forms and scale, Chinese courts continue to retain the campaign-style rallies which legal experts have decried for years, arguing that the rallies disregard the presumption of innocence and mainly serve to shame prisoners. 

Indoor & Virtual Rallies 

A group of 14 drug traffickers were sentenced in what a Shenzhen court called a “public sentencing rally” on June 23, 2020. Image credit: Shenzhen News Network website 

Public sentencing rallies have long been integral to showcase the government’s efforts to combat drug crimes on the International Day against Drugs and Illicit Trafficking, observed annually on June 26. The date is of special significance in China as it serves to commemorate Lin Zexu, officially lauded as an anti-opium hero for dismantling the opium trade in Guangdong before the First Opium War in 1839

China continued to feature a series of high-profile public sentencing rallies on the International Day against Drugs and Illicit Trafficking amid the outbreak of the pandemic. In Shenzhen, a rally was held on June 23, 2020 to announce the death sentences of two traffickers of methamphetamine. The sentences had previously been determined by the Shenzhen Intermediate People’s Court and subsequently approved by the Supreme People’s Court. On the same day, the intermediate court also publicly sentenced ten people involved in a drug case. 

Unlike a widely reported rally in Lufeng County, Guangdong, where two courts sentenced 10 criminals to death in front of tens of thousands of people including children on December 16, 2017, the 2020 Shenzhen rally was not attended by any public spectators due to the stringent social distancing measures and anti-pandemic curbs at the time. The rally took place instead in a courtroom where only a judge and a clerk could be seen, according to an online video published on the Shenzhen News Network website. None of the defendants appeared in front of the judge to receive judgments. They were seen in a synchronous video in Shenzhen No.2 Detention Center wearing face masks, handcuffed, and escorted by security guards while the judge announced the death sentences. 

The duo was executed on the same day immediately after the rally ended. In the same rally, the judge announced that another drug trafficker was sentenced to life imprisonment and that ten other defendants were convicted of manufacturing, selling and transporting drugs, and illegal possession of firearms. 

Courts outside of Guangdong have also been eager to convene sentencing rallies in campaigns against drug abuse on or before the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking. In 2021, the Dandong Intermediate People’s Court of Liaoning Province held a rally in a courtroom where 13 handcuffed drug offenders stood in front of the judge in a courtroom to receive prison sentences ranging from nine years’ imprisonment to death with a two-year reprieve. A post published on the Liaoning High Court website claimed that the rally, which was attended by less than two dozen spectators, manifested “a high-pressure crackdown on drug crimes, effectively suppressed the arrogance of drug criminals, and contributed to the construction of a harmonious and safe Dandong.” 

Four defendants received judgments in a public sentencing rally convened by the Pingnan County People’s Court of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region as part of the campaign to combat environmental pollution. Photo image: Pingnan County People’s Court website 

It must be noted that sentencing rallies are not exclusively used against drug traffickers. In May 2021, a local court in Guangxi convened a virtual rally for four people convicted of illegally disposing of hazardous substances. As with the 2020 Shenzhen rally, the defendants received their judgments via video while handcuffed in a detention center. This rally was held as part of the open day organized by the Pingnan County People’s Court to educate the public about environmental protection. It was sparsely attended by only 12 people from the local community, according to information provided by the court website. 

200-Spectator Rally in Yancheng, Jiangsu 

Twenty-two criminal suspects were hauled into a sentencing rally attended by over 200 people in Yancheng, Jiangsu on October 28, 2020. Image credit: China Central Television 

Despite the onerous zero-COVID measures that were in full swing in 2020, public attendees were occasionally allowed to take part in sentencing rallies of a smaller scale. The Yancheng Intermediate People’s Court in Jiangsu Province invited over 200 people from the National People’s Congress, members of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, journalists, village cadres, and resident representatives to the rally in Longgang Township on December 28, 2020. The 22 defendants manufactured banned substances including hydroxylamine hydrochloride, chlorophenyl, hydrochloric acid, and toluene. They could be seen wearing white hazmat suits with face masks while receiving judgments in front of the judge and the spectators. 

Of the 22 defendants, three were sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve. Each of them was accused of selling methamphetamine weighing 4,000 to 6,000 grams (about 8.82 to 13.23 pounds). The other defendants received prison sentences from 22 months to 11 years for manufacturing hydroxylamine hydrochloride totaling 1,106 grams (about 2.44 pounds).  

Student Spectators in Hainan 

(Top to bottom) Dozens of Hainan school students, all seen wearing uniforms and face masks, sat in rows in a public sentencing rally held at the Danzhou District People’s Court on April 24, 2020. Image credit: The Paper 
As public sentencing rallies serve as sites of expressive punishment, teenage students are also required to attend such events as part of their legal education (法制教育). Images published by the Hainan court website show dozens of students in school uniforms sitting in rows to watch nine drug defendants receive prison sentences from ten months to 15 years’ imprisonment on April 24, 2020. The defendants were accused of selling large quantities of ecstasy and other counterfeit drugs. 

It was not the first time young students were required to watch public sentencing rallies. In June 2018, two drug dealers received death sentences in Haikou in front of hundreds of people, many of whom were students wearing school uniforms. The duo was executed following the rally. The executions took place elsewhere at a designated venue, so the students did not witness the actual executions.  

Outdoor Rally in Guangxi against Gangland Crimes 

Traditional sentencing rallies held in large outdoor public spaces did not entirely vanish during the pandemic. On June 28, 2020, an outdoor rally was held in Donglan County, Guangxi, to publicly arrest and sentence gangland criminals. The rally was not held in a courtroom but in a sports stadium. Available sources did not state how many spectators attended, but the image below shows rows of police officers alongside dozens of public spectators. At the back of the crowds, criminal suspects and defendants stood in a row in front of the judge’s podium. They could be seen wearing the typical white hazmat protective suits and facing the group of public spectators. 

An outdoor rally in Donglan County, Guangxi, on June 28, 2020, during which alleged criminals were publicly arrested and sentenced. Image credit: Wei Hao / Weixin 

Efforts to ban public executions 

China’s decision to ban public executions dates back to 1979, while “perp walks” for sex workers were banned more recently in 2010. The Supreme People’s Court, Supreme People’s Procuratorate, Ministry of Public Security, and Ministry of Justice jointly issued notices in 1984 and 1986 prohibiting public parades before executions, saying that such events provided opportunities for overseas counterrevolutionary propaganda to “slander” China. 

Public executions (as well as the broader use of capital punishment) were thought to be one of many human rights-related objections to China’s bid to host the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, a point Dui Hua executive director John Kamm recalled in a 2010 Washington Post op-ed. In the run-up to the opening of the Games, another joint opinion was issued in March 2007 to prohibit public parades before executions as well as to enforce the rights of the executed, including last visitation rights for the family. Criminal Procedure Law also stipulates that while the public should be notified of executions, the execution itself should not be held in public. 

Going Forward 

Over the years, legal experts have spoken out against public arrests and sentencings, branding them “campaign-style justice” that emphasize swift and severe punishment. However, the general public tends to empathize with the need to deter crimes by publicly shaming the offenders. In its seventh annual report, the Collaborative Innovation Center of Judicial Civilization released its latest data collected over 24,354 surveys across 31 provinces, municipalities, and autonomous regions. It finds that over 62.5 percent of respondents expressed support for public arrest and sentencing rallies in 2018. The following year, the approval rate declined to 55.5 percent but bounced back to 61.3 percent in 2020-2021. Of them, 19.1 percent in 2020-2021 expressed strong support for retaining the practice, lower than 23.7 percent in 2018 but higher than the 15.8 percent in 2019. 

A public trial is intended to boost transparency by informing the public about who the accusers are, the nature of the charges, and the evidence against the accused. It is fundamentally different from a public sentencing rally — a form of show trial where the judgment and sentence of a criminal case already determined in court is publicly announced in front of crowds of public spectators. Such rallies serve a political agenda to demonstrate the government’s determination to fight crimes, blame and shame criminals, and educate the public about their alleged crimes. In response to a controversial sentencing rally held in Langzhong, Sichuan, in 2016, Professor Yu Qilin of China University of Political Science and Law remarked that trial fairness and justice is maintained through procedure transparency in the courtroom, not public spectacle.

The use of public sentencing rallies to shame the accused appears to be on a downward trend in recent years thanks to China's strict adherence to the hard-line zero-COVID policy. A decade ago, people accused of endangering state security, terrorism, and religious extremism in Xinjiang, as well as well as “wild imams” who preached illegally in the restive region, were condemned in front of crowds of thousands. At the very least, the rallies discussed in this post were downsized and used in a narrower scope to target drug traffickers and members of organized crime. Additionally, individuals shamed in the rallies were no longer seen wearing confessional placards or driven through the streets in open trucks.  
The practice of public shaming never really vanished even when strict pandemic measures were in force. On December 28, 2021, four men accused of smuggling people across an international border were publicly shamed in Guangxi. They were flanked by police officers and paraded through the streets of Jingxi City. Although authorities claimed that the parade served as a warning of what could happen if people violated the pandemic curbs, Beijing News editorial remarked that “the measure seriously violates the spirit of the rule of law and cannot be allowed to happen again.” With the lifting of pandemic curbs following nationwide protests in late 2022, it remains to be seen whether large-scale sentencing rallies will reemerge.