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

BEIJING — 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 — with something going wrong in the investigation and prosecution phases.

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Bejing's Supreme People's Court — 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 — 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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