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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.

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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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