China 2.0

What Prison Jumpsuits In Court Say About Chinese Justice

China's ambitious judicial reform must include such basic principles as 'innocent until proven guilty,' and equality before the law. But it must also happen one small detail at a time.

Yellow, the color of guilt?
Yellow, the color of guilt?
Du Yuan

BEIJING — On Feb. 26, China's Supreme People's Court published a notification about the country's justice reform that included new rules about courtroom attire. In the future, the High Court declared that criminal defendants in custody should not be forced to wear prison uniforms when appearing at trial.

"Criminal suspects are alleged, not confirmed, criminals. We shouldn't be labeling them with a sign or mark of guilt," He Xiaorong, Division Director of the Supreme People's Court, responsible for the reform, stated to the press.

In certain western countries, there exists the profession of courtroom sketch artist. As court cases often ban filming or photographs, the sketcher's drawing allows the guarantee of a fair judicial process while also ensuring the public's right to know.

The reason why trials are not allowed to be filmed or photographed is to guarantee both an individual citizen's human rights and the carrying out of judicial fairness — "innocent until proven guilty" is at the heart of a sound justice system.

Though the rules about attire are only a detail in the complex judicial regulations and procedures, it is precisely in such details that we can see how developed and civilized a nation's legal procedures really are.

And indeed, there is real room for improvement in China as regards the clothes worn by defendants when they appear at trials.

Though there is no precise data, in major criminal hearings in China, many accused are forced to wear various types of prison jumpsuits in court. These uniforms or vests are mostly bright yellow or orange with a number and the name of the detention center.

From the perspective of the judicial system, making a defendant wear a "prison uniform" doesn't mean that he or she is guilty, but that the involved party is detained in accordance with the law. Detention center rules demand these inmates wear said jumpsuits. Unfortunately, people still associate this kind of clothing with the notion of “having got caught." Subconsciously it leads to a presumption of guilt.

Star defendants

In the course of my work, I have attended several hundred criminal hearings in recent years and am very attentive to the media coverage of certain major cases. I notice that when it involves high level officials, they tend to appear wearing ordinary clothing. Once the trial begins, handcuffs are removed.

Beijing's Supreme People's Court — Photo: ONUnicorn

The notion whereby “without a trial, nobody is a criminal” is more or less held up in such cases. This was shown in the first court hearing, in 2013, of prominent Communist Party official Bo Xilai which aroused worldwide attention and during which he wore civilian clothes without any form of restraints.

However, in numerous other criminal hearings and, in particular, when the accused has no political connections, the ideas we've cited about proper justice procedure don't seem to be taken much into account. Take the Yao Jiaxin case for instance. In this sensational case, Yao was accused of murder triggered by a traffic accident. When he appeared at his trial, the young man wore a green prison uniform bearing the name of his detention center, together with the number 117.

Government officials, when brought into court — with their higher education level and better understanding of the judicial system in general — care more about clothing in the courts and their rights in this regard. In January this year, Zhou Wenbin, the former president of Nanchang University, accused of taking bribes and embezzling public funds, made a request to take off his jumpsuit. Even though the presiding judge didn’t grant Zhou’s request, pointing out that China’s Supreme Court hadn't issued official instructions on courtroom attire, the defendant took off his jumpsuit anyway.

Jaycee Chan, actor and son of the famous Kung Fu star Jackie Chan, didn’t wear a prison uniform when appearing on drug charges last year.

Needless to say, not wearing a prison uniform is a legitimate right for any citizen who has not been convicted of a crime. The Supreme People's Court should get to the root of the problem and force local courts to apply the regulation to both well-known and ordinary defendants.

China’s ongoing judicial reforms are potentially vast in scope, comprised of countless rules and regulations. But like any other ambitious reform, the best way to change a system is by improving details, one by one.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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