Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Gray Matters: China’s Aging Prisoners

Men play chess inside the “elderly” prisoner cell block of Henan No. 3 Prison. Image credit: Pan Xiaoling / Southern Weekly

Decades of falling birth rates and rising life expectancy have made China one of the fastest aging countries. In 2023, its population aged 60 and above reached 297 million, or 21.1 percent of the population. While the aging population puts pressure on the already strained pension system and economic growth, elderly prisoners represent another pressing issue that requires more attention.  

Unlike juvenile justice, there is a dearth of information about elderly prisoners. They don’t seem to be an area of concern prevalent or pervasive enough to warrant careful consideration. Even the Ministry of Justice acknowledged the lack of relevant statistical data and academic research, and that judicial organs and law enforcement have yet to develop sensitivity with regard to the conviction, sentencing, rehabilitation, and management of elderly offenders. 

A Rising Estimate 

The World Prison Brief indicated that that there were 1.69 million prisoners in China in 2017, the latest year for which statistics are available. According to Chinese sources, the number increased to two million in 2022 although it has not been officially verified. While publicly available sources have not disaggregated the prison population by age, a 2021 article by the China Prison Association estimated that elderly prisoners accounted for about 5.2 percent of the prison population, and of them 65 percent were male and 35 percent were female. If we extrapolate the estimate from the prison population, an estimated 88,000-104,000 elderly people are in jail today. 

Chinese legal experts generally agree that the number of elderly prisoners has been surging. First, a substantial portion have aged naturally after serving long prison sentences. Following the 2011 eighth amendment to the Criminal Law, more people who were already serving lengthy terms have had to spend more time in jail. The amendment also increased the mandatory minimum time served for life sentences before their sentences can be commuted to fixed terms. In 2015, China introduced the sentence of life without the possibility of parole for people convicted of corruption and bribery. 

Elderly crime has also soared over the years. Statistics provided by the Supreme People Court indicated that the number of defendants aged 60 or above increased fourfold from 5,759 in 1998 to 23,817 in 2016 (See Table 1). However, not all of those tried and convicted ended up in jail. The 2011 Criminal Law amendment allows courts to grant offenders aged 75 or older lighter punishments, such as suspended sentences, because they are seen to pose a smaller risk to society. 

Table 1. Elderly Defendants from 1998-2016
Source: Dui Hua, Records of People’s Courts Historical Judicial Statistics: 1949-2016 

Types of Elderly Crime 

In 2012, China Court Website published its findings on this under-researched topic and summarized the types of elderly crime: 

  1. Most crimes were committed solitarily and could be classified into two distinct categories:  
    • (i) crimes reflecting lower-level needs for survival or safety;  
    • (ii) crimes committed for obtaining economic benefits, venting negative emotions, or satisfying physiological needs; 
  2. The crimes of bribery, abetting, deception, and harboring tended to be perpetrated by elderly people with good education, social status, and work experience attained from their careers; 
  3. Violent crimes such as homicide, aggravated assault, and robbery were rare. Perpetrators typically had poor education and targeted vulnerable groups such as women and children as victims; 
  4. Elderly males committed crimes such as molestation, rape, fraud, theft and harboring while women tended to commit crimes of disrupting social order; 
  5. An increasing number of elderly people were involved in Article 300 “organizing/using a cult to undermine implementation of the law.” 

Although the 2012 article did not provide relevant figures, Dui Hua’s research into court statistics released by the Supreme People’s Court showed a clear upward trend in “cult,” or unorthodox religion, cases involving elderly prisoners from 1998-2016. In 2016, the last year for which statistics are available, 523 defendants aged 60 or above were tried for Article 300, or 2.2 percent of all elderly defendants. In 1998, when Article 300 was in force for the first year, only three elderly people were tried. The number rose to 103 in 2003 when the crackdown on Falun Gong was in full swing.  

Table 2. Elderly Defendants Tried for Article 300, 1998-2016
Source: Dui Hua, Records of People’s Courts Historical Judicial Statistics: 1949-2016 

Endangering State Security 

Elderly offenders are not prominently represented in cases of endangering state security (ESS), China’s most serious political crimes. Statistics released by the Supreme People’s Court indicated that only 63 defendants aged over 60 or above were tried for ESS from 1998-2016. No elderly people were tried in ESS cases in 2013, 2014, and 2016. 

Table 3. Elderly defendants in ESS cases, 1998-2016 
Source: Dui Hua, Records of People’s Courts Historical Judicial Statistics: 1949-2016 

Dui Hua previously reported the case of Chen Zhaolu (陈兆祿), one of the China’s oldest ESS prisoners. Born on December 9, 1917, in Guangzhou, Chen became a Hong Kong resident in 1968 when he started working for Xinhua News Agency – then China’s de facto consulate in Hong Kong. Eighteen years after his retirement, on November 25, 2003, Chen was detained in Guangzhou on suspicion of espionage. On January 19, 2004, the Guangzhou Intermediate People’s Court sentenced Chen to 13 years’ imprisonment. At age 86, he was incarcerated in the elderly prisoner cell block of Guangzhou Prison, Guangdong’s “model prison.” Chen was given a nine-month sentence reduction in 2006 and a 16-month sentence reduction in 2008. He was granted medical parole for a period of three years on September 2, 2009. His sentence expired in October 2014. 

More recently, US citizen and Hong Kong resident Leung Shing-wan (梁成运, aka John Leung) was convicted of espionage and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2023 in Suzhou at the age of 78. Such heavy terms are rare for elderly offenders and for foreign nationals in China. Leung was the chairman of the Association for the Promotion of the Peaceful Reunification of China in Texas. The association is believed to be connected to the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work Department tasked with promoting Beijing’s claim over Taiwan. His case was showcased on the 10th National Security Education Day on April 15, 2024. 

The Intermediate People's Court of Suzhou, Jiangsu. (Inset) Leung Shing-wan, who was 78 years old when the court convicted him. Image credit: Cantonese Group Cartography / Radio Free Asia

Leniency & Clemency 

While individuals aged 60 or above are generally considered elderly, leniency is now granted at a higher age threshold. The Public Security Administration Punishments Law grants public security the discretion to not impose administrative detention on elderly people over 70 years old, even in cases of serious violations of public security management.  

Additionally, the Criminal Law stipulates lighter punishments for individuals over age 75. Following the 2011 amendment, they cannot be subjected to the death penalty unless the offender has committed an act of particular cruelty. As an indication of the impact this has had, the number of Chinese capital cases involving people over 70 is fewer than 10 cases per year in the early 2010s, compared to the estimated 4,000 people executed in China in 2011. 

The amendment also expanded the scope of leniency by encouraging the use of lighter punishment and suspended sentences to those who commit an intentional crime at the age of 75 or greater. Some critics have similarly argued that this age is too high to have any real impact. 

Provincial authorities have also taken it upon themselves to expound on how elderly offenders are treated with more leniency. In 2014, the Sichuan High People’s Court issued a guiding opinion on the sentencing of elderly prisoners. Offenders of intentional crimes aged 65-74 can have their sentences mitigated by 30 percent. The mitigation length increases to 40 percent for those aged 75 or above. Elderly offenders who commit crimes of negligence can also have their penalty mitigated by 50 percent. The extent of leniency is also determined by the motive, time, method, severity of the crime, truthfulness of their confessions, and willingness to repent. 

In 1991, businessman John Kamm, now executive director of Dui Hua, visited a prison in Guangdong Province. He went to the prison to ask about two members of the Shouters, an “unorthodox religious group.” Upon arrival, Kamm was told that both men had been granted medical parole shortly before he arrived at the prison. The warden claimed that the prison authorities had the discretion to grant medical parole to prisoners over the age of 70. Dui Hua was unable to verify this claim.  

In January 2011, provincial authorities in Anhui grant parole or sentence reductions to 151 elderly or disabled prisoners. Image credit: Legal Daily 

Since Xi Jinping became President in 2012, he has issued two special pardons benefitting specific groups of elderly prisoners (Xi was the first leader to use his power to grant special pardons since Mao Zedong. No special pardons were issued between 1975 and 2015).  
  1. Of the 31,527 people pardoned in 2015, fifty were veterans of the War of Resistance Against Japan (World War II) and the War of Liberation (the Chinese Civil War), 1,428 were veterans of foreign wars who were not convicted of serious crimes, and 122 were over 75 years old “with serious physical difficulties” and “unable to take care of themselves.”  
  2. In 2019, Xi announced the second special pardon to mark the 70th founding anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. This resulted in 15,858 people receiving clemency. It remains to be seen whether Xi will announce a third pardon in 2025 to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the end of World War II. 
Besides the special pardons, releases of elderly prisoners have been rare. An exception was in 2009, when Chinese news media reported that approximately 2,000 elderly, sick, and disabled prisoners were given parole or allowed to temporarily serve sentences outside prison in part to alleviate prison overcrowding. At the time, 5,000 elderly, sick, and disabled prisoners were reportedly held in Sichuan prisons. Another mass release, albeit on a lesser scale, took place in Ningxia also in 2009. Nearly 100 elderly prisoners were granted parole. This clemency took place following a study which revealed that 117 or almost half of the elderly, sick, and handicapped prisoners in Yingchuan Prison and Ningxia Women’s Prison had not received any clemency from 2007-2009. 

On December 15, 2008, a 54-year-old female prisoner returns home after receiving parole and being released from Chengdu Women’s Prison. Her sentence was set to expire in March 2010. Image credit: Sina News 

In carceral facilities, restraint devices are prohibited on elderly prisoners under normal circumstances. Alongside the weak, ill, and handicapped, elderly prisoners are also exempt from prison labor. While Chinese government sources confirmed that around 10 percent of the prison population in 1990 were exempt from physical labor, recent figures have not been made publicly available. Instead, elderly prisoners are assessed by their willingness to express remorse and their performance in education rehabilitation.  

Health Issues 

Prisons are designed to prevent criminals from escaping, not to cater to the elderly. They often have poor lighting, steep stairs, and dim corridors unsuited for elderly prisoners. While these prisoners are typically held in special prison wards along with the ill, weak, and disabled, high bunk beds and pit-style urinals are commonplace and can be physically challenging for elderly prisoners.  

An article published in an academic journal in 2021 examined the health problems of elderly prisoners. The author cited a survey conducted in an elderly ward in Hebei. Of them, over half suffered from cardiovascular diseases, followed by 7.3 percent from tuberculosis, 6.7 percent from diabetes, 2.8 percent from hepatitis, 2.3 percent from asthma, and 2.2 percent from spondylitis. Citing research published in 2018, the study revealed that 57 percent of the elderly in an unnamed Shanghai prison were on daily or regular medication. 

The cost of incarcerating elderly prisoners has surged because of their medical needs. Hospitalization expenses for elderly prisoners in an unnamed prison in a western province rose 77 percent in three years to 15,900 yuan in 2016. Hospitalization alone exceeded 76 percent of the budget allocated for medical care. In a women’s prison also in the western province, the government’s financial allocation for inmates’ medical costs in 2015 could only meet one-sixth of its actual medical expenses. In most provinces, actual medical expenses for inmates similarly exceeded the standard financial allocation by more than 50 percent. Elderly prisoners are said to be the leading cause of the surge in medical costs, according to the author. 

Discriminatory Treatment 

Many elderly political prisoners are known to be ailing, but they have been denied sufficient care in prison. Prominent journalist Gao Yu (高瑜) began serving her five-year prison sentence for illegally trafficking in state secrets for a foreign entity at age 71. The crime stemmed from her leaking “Document No.9,” an internal notice by the Chinese government warning members against promoting “universal values” such as human rights. While incarcerated, she suffered from chronic heart pain, high blood pressure, a form of inner ear disorder called Ménière’s disease, and an undiagnosed chronic skin allergy. She was denied medications she took when living at home and access to specialists to assess and treat her. Gao had to wait two full years before she was admitted to a Beijing hospital to receive treatment. 
Journalist Gao Yu in the Beijing's Anzhen Hospital after her garden and office were demolished, April 5, 2016. Image credit: Su Yutong / Radio Free Asia

Despite their failing health, clemency is not guaranteed for prisoners convicted of politically motivated crimes. Wang Bingzhang (王炳章), born in 1947, continues to serve his life sentence in Guangdong’s Shaoguan Prison 22 years into his sentence. Wang is a veteran dissident who founded the China Democracy & Justice Party. In 2003, he was sentenced to life imprisonment for espionage and organizing a terrorist organization. Information given to Dui Hua by a Chinese government interlocutor confirmed that Wang suffered from thrombophlebitis, varicose veins, "sudden" bradycardia, tinea, and allergic rhinitis. He had suffered a mild stroke. Wang was in prolonged solitary confinement and subjected to daily “political study” meant to get him to write confessions and admit his crimes. Updates provided by his family in March 2023 revealed that Wang had contracted Covid-19 earlier that year, and that he was in constant dental pain and needed dental implants after eight of his teeth had fallen out. However, such dental care is not available in Shaoguan Prison. 

China has a track record in depriving political prisoners of medical care. Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo died from liver cancer in 2017 at age 61. Medical parole was granted only when his cancer had advanced. Wang Bingzhang, aged 77 this year, has yet to have his life sentence commuted despite repeated applications for medical parole and clemency over the past two decades. Such discriminatory treatment strengthens the fear that the Chinese government will simply let ailing elderly political prisoners die behind bars. 

Wang Bingzhang, aged 77 this year, has yet to have his life sentence commuted despite repeated applications for medical parole. Image credit: Raoul Wallenberg Centre 

Prisons are responsible for the well-being of all prisoners regardless of their crimes. They should ensure that everyone has immediate access to the specialist care they need. If such care is unavailable in prison, prisoners should be transferred to a hospital before their conditions worsen. Rule 27 of the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners states that “All prisons shall ensure prompt access to medical attention in urgent cases. Prisoners who require specialized treatment or surgery shall be transferred to specialized institutions or civil hospitals. Where a prison service has its own hospital facilities, they shall be adequately staffed and equipped to provide prisoners transferred to them with appropriate treatment and care.”