|A 2021 trial for a murder case, which was livestreamed on China Court Trial Online. Image credit: Kaifeng Intermediate People's Court, Henan Province|
Acquittal rates in China have always been low, but in 2022 the number decreased to a record low. According to the most recent China Law Yearbook, an annual official compendium released in 2023 that covers 2022, only 631 individuals (0.044 percent of the 1,431,585 defendants with effective judgments) were found not guilty by criminal courts in 2022.
The conviction rate in 2022 was 99.95 percent, a record high according to statistics in the China Law Yearbook. The acquittal rates dropped every year in the decade after 2003. The most dramatic decrease happened in 2005, when the 0.256 percent acquittal rate was less than half of 2003’s already low 0.647 percent. In 2010, the acquittal rate fell below 0.1 percent for the first time and has never returned above this level.
Source: China Law Yearbooks, 2004-2023
When Xi Jinping began his first term as Chinese president in 2013, many legal practitioners expressed optimism that acquittal rates would approach more “normal” levels as a result of proposed legal reforms aimed to strengthen procedural justice. Although what constitutes a “normal” acquittal level is not clearly defined, a five percent rate is often cited when the topic is discussed in China. Chinese legal authorities also overturned a series of high-profile convictions and took steps to strengthen measures to exclude confessions extracted through torture and other illegal evidence.
For 2013, the acquittal rate rose briefly for the first time since 2003, growing annually from six acquittals per 10,000 adjudications to seven. The rates remained steady, climbing at a slow pace until 2018 when they dropped again to 0.057 percent, a 37 percent decrease compared to the previous year.
Source: China Law Yearbooks, 2004-2023
Xi has spearheaded an effort to hold judges, prosecutors, and police officers accountable for wrongful convictions in cases that have since been retried. In 2021, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate investigated all of the 246 criminal cases that were re-tried and corrected since 2018 and found that in 22 of these cases, people had been wrongly jailed for more than 10 years. More than 500 prosecutors were punished, some of whom had already retired.
The acquittal rate saw a brief rise to 0.084 percent in 2019. However, this reversal was short-lived. In the three years that followed, the rates have again dropped, to 0.068 percent in 2020, 0.052 percent in 2021, and then to 0.044 percent in 2022.
Acquittals are even rarer in trials of endangering state security (ESS) crimes, which include subversion, inciting subversion, splittism, inciting splittism, obtaining or providing state secrets, and espionage. From 2013-2016, only ten people were acquitted, according to statistics released by the Supreme People’s Court. The names and other details of these ten individuals are not known. Dui Hua is not aware of any acquittals for ESS crimes after 2016.
Table 3. ESS acquittals (effective judgments), 2013-2016
|Year||No. of Acquittals of ESS Crimes|
Source: Records of People’s Courts Historical Judicial Statistics, Criminal Trials Vol. 6, 2013-2016
In a Human Rights Journal published in 2015, Dui Hua reported that the number of not-guilty judgments is influenced by efforts to avoid the payment of state compensation, marginalize defense attorneys, restrict judicial independence, and maintain stability. Some of these issues have continued, according to a 2022 legal journal re-posted by Shanghquan Law Firm. Additionally, judges realize that acquittals can adversely impact professional assessments for prosecutors because successful convictions are seen as a means for career advancement. There remains an unspoken rule that prosecutors can withdraw indictments and collaborate with judges to eliminate the possibility of non-guilty judgments or to hand out lighter punishments in cases where evidence against the accused is weak.
One of the fundamental purposes of a criminal justice system is to protect innocent people from being convicted of crimes they did not commit. Despite efforts to overturn high-profile wrongful convictions, these instances likely represent a fraction of cases where defendants are wrongly charged with crimes. The persistently low acquittal rates over the years raise questions about how many more people are incarcerated for crimes they did not commit. A court which exercises its authority to acquit in accordance with the law ensures systemic justice and procedural fairness; it is fundamentally different from relying on political whims to right past wrongs. As Xi rejects the notion of judicial independence, continues his crackdown on defense lawyers, and places state security and stability maintenance above all else, there is little in place to stop the near-guaranteed high conviction rate from continuing for the foreseeable future.
Download: China Acquittals, 2003-2022 (Excel). Source: China Law Yearbook, compiled by Dui Hua.