Why Chinese Courts Are So Prone To Wrongful Convictions

Law enforcement agencies that bring cases to court, and the administrators who act as court overseers, have far more power and influence than judges, who are often pressured to render false verdicts. How it works, and why the system needs overhauling.

At the Heilongjiang Intermediate People's Court in Harbin, northern China
Li Yongjun

BEIJING â€" A few days ago, a man in the central city of Shiyan stabbed four judges on the city's Intermediate People's Court, badly injuring two of them. Unfortunately, it's not an isolated case. In recent years, threats and violence against judges by people dissatisfied with court decisions have become frequent all across China. There was even a case in Hunan province in which four judges were shot and killed while they were presiding.

These incidents reflect the judicial system's serious lack of credibility, and the discontent is also evident in Chinese social media. The topic of judicial injustice often evokes the names Yu Xianlin, Zhao Zuohai, Nie Shubin and Hugejiletu. Because of miscarriages of justice, two of these wrongfully accused people were executed long ago, and the other two spent much of their lives in prison, wrongly convicted.

These cases resulted from botched court decisions, but the real cause of wrongful convictions can't be attributed entirely to the courts. They are just the last link in the whole litigation pipeline.

Because of the obsession with China's revolutionary past, law enforcement authorities are accepted as representatives of state violence, and their function emphasizes safeguarding the nation's security and social stability. Even though the Chinese constitution specifies that they and court administrators known as "procurators" are to share responsibility with the courts, supervising and keeping one another in check and sharing the burden evenly, it doesn't work out this way in practice.

Endowed with the special function of maintaining security and national stability, public security agencies enjoy an absolute advantage in terms of political status, number of personnel and management capabilities. They even control the implementation of many coercive measures, which don't require approval of other government departments.

Under the constitution, the procurators are dedicated to the oversight of public power, so that courts and judges are under their supervision. As a result, Chinese courts enjoy neither a public safety agency's "might" nor a procurator's "power." They are instead the weak link the in the power structure of criminal proceedings.

In practice, China's criminal proceedings follow three steps. When the first agency completes its mission, the "semi-finished product" is passed on to the next one, and at the end the court comes up with the final product. In other words, independently formed conclusions are made during the various stages of the proceedings, and any so-called supervision is only expressed with disagreement or denial of the conclusion made at the end.

Courts cowed and pressured

It takes not a small amount of courage to challenge one of the legs of the three-legged stool, and that's especially true for the court, which arguably wields the least amount of power. After all, that's how cases of wrongful conviction begin â€" with something going wrong in the investigation and prosecution phases.

Bejing's Supreme People's Court â€" Photo: ONUnicorn

When problems arise, certain cases can be returned for supplementary investigation to the initial public safety agency. But that often still fails to change the result, and sometimes the law enforcement agency pressures the court administrator to agree with their opinion, ostensibly in the interest of maintaining stability. Many wrongful convictions have happened this way.

"At the trial stage, it may happen that certain indictable cases are lacking key evidence, or the evidence was not collected in accordance with law," says Chinese Supreme Court president Zhou Qiang. "Therefore, these cases simply don't meet the requirements of "clear case facts with ample evidence," and the court is stuck. It can neither convict nor acquit the defendant. In a case where the sentence is forced out, this may lead to a miscarriage of justice, whereas if the accused is to be let off, the court may also endure enormous pressure from all sectors of society. This is why the defendants tend to suffer overlong detention, and this also causes public discontent."

It is because the court is last in the procedural chain that it becomes the object of public anger. And because public security is almighty while the court is weak, regulations for investigations are often compromised.

Revised Criminal Procedure Law in 2012 made some progress on certain concepts and principles such as "presumption of innocence" and "reasonable doubt." But the specific provisions still give unchecked power to the investigative branches, leaving too much room for unregulated investigation. For instance, even if an investigator's procedure for evidence collection was flawed, he can still use the same evidence as long as he makes a reasonable explanation. Even when there is reasonable doubt, a court dare not acquit a defendant right away.

Every citizen can benefit from a sound system, and anybody can be a victim to an unfair one â€" even the police themselves. Consider the the notorious case of Du Peiwu, a police officer who was accused of killing his wife and one of her colleagues. He was tortured during interrogation by his own and narrowly escaped the death penalty when the real culprit was found.

It's obvious how important a virtuous legal system is in upholding justice and in protecting human rights. The key to solving China's judicial lack of credibility is to rebuild the system. The allocation of power needs to be readjusted and optimized, in which the court and judges become the center of legal proceedings.

*Li Yongjun is a law professor at Jilin University.

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European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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