By He Qinglian Created: October 21, 2012 Last Updated: October 22, 2012
China’s State Council recently released a white paper on judicial reform, lauding “new, more prudent death penalty rules.” But there’s a catch to it.
The notice, issued on Oct. 9, barely received any Chinese media attention except for an official announcement by state-run China Daily.
You can’t really blame Chinese media for not caring or commenting, because the so-called reforms merely aim to provide more leniency for government officials involved in corruption cases, while common citizens still face execution.
However, the paper sanctimoniously stated, “the death penalty bears directly on citizen’s right to life, so it must be applied in a very prudent manner.”
It also cited past “achievements” of controlling and gradually reducing the use of the death penalty. For example, Amendment Eight to the Criminal Law, promulgated in 2011, eliminated the death penalty for 13 nonviolent, economics-related offenses, which accounted for 19.1 percent of total death penalty convictions. It also stipulated that the death penalty should generally not be used for people who are already 75 years old at the time of trial.
What the white paper did not mention is that these reforms mainly benefit senior officials charged with corruption, rather than ordinary citizens. The punishment for corrupt officials has been handled with more and more leniency in China. In recent years, probation has become the preferred treatment for corrupt officials.
Although the Chinese regime has taken extremely slow steps toward meeting international standards on many other rights issues, it has acted very fast in eliminating the death penalty for corruption. It justified its decision by arguing that curbing corruption with the death penalty is “regulatory laziness.”
For example, from 2001 to 2005, the increase in charges waived against officials, who had committed “dereliction of duty and infringement on citizens’ rights,” went from 53 percent to 83 percent, the Information Times said in 2006.
An Oct. 11 article on News.ifeng, citing prison sources, said that every year at least 20 to 30 percent of inmates receive sentence reductions, and almost all of them are former senior officials who are given probation or parole for medical treatment.
While the Chinese government is showing increasing tolerance of official’s corruption, such leniency is rarely applied to ordinary citizens. One example is the case of Xia Junfeng, a street vendor who killed a “chengguan” urban management enforcement officer, when a group of them violently beat him up. Since Xia acted in self-defense, legal experts generally held that he should have been pardoned, but he was still sentenced to death.
The White Paper said nothing about whether labor camps should be abolished.
The education-through-labor camp system was highlighted in August when Tang Hui, known as the “petitioner mom” was sentenced to labor camp because she demanded tougher punishment for people accused of raping and forcing her 11-year-old daughter into prostitution.
Tang’s sentence sparked nationwide calls for abolishing labor camps, but the white paper made no mention about it. When asked twice about the labor camp system at a press conference, Jiang Wei, Office Director of the Central Leading Group for Judicial Reform, would only say that, “the labor camp system has played a role in maintaining social order,” that there are “regulatory problems” within the system, and that relevant departments are experimenting with reforms.
The white paper’s failure to respond to the Chinese people’s strong opposition to the labor camp system is a very prominent issue, especially considering that even many deputies of the People’s Congresses, who are the official representatives of the people, have publicly called for abolishing the system.
Congressional Deputy and Chongqing University law professor Chen Zhonglin once suggested reforms for the labor camp system, stating, “The labor camp system must be changed, and the Illegal Behavior Correction Law is the way.” Chen said society agrees that the labor camp system needs to be reduced, but there is major disagreement as to which department should make the corrective decisions.
No Judicial Independence
The key to China’s judicial reform is judicial independence, which there is none in China. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) uses the judicial system as a tool to maintain its dictatorship, rather than a corner stone of state politics.
The Chinese system adopts a multi-hierarchy and multi-type division of legislative purview under the unified leadership of the central CCP rule. In appearance, the power of legislation is given to the “supreme organs of state power,” the National Congress and its Standing Committee. At the same time, the State Council is entitled to issue administrative regulations, which are equally binding as laws. Provinces, autonomous regions, municipalities, such as Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, and Chongqing, as well as special economic zones, such as Shenzhen, also have legislative rights.
But in effect, the National Congress, as well as the provincial and municipal congresses, is nothing else but the CCP’s political tools; they must abide by the CCP’s command regarding the content and timing of legislation. That’s why China’s congress is referred to as a “rubber stamp congress.”
Starting in 2000, the CCP stipulated that Party secretaries at respective levels must assume leadership positions in all provincial, municipal, and autonomous regions’ congresses. The CCP-led trinity control over the legislative, judicial, and administrative systems has doomed Chinese legislation to solely reflect the CCP’s will. Important judicial positions such as court presidents and chief justices are appointed by the CCP, primarily based on their political loyalty to the Party.
As long as the Party is above the law and controls the legislation, judiciary, and administration, any so-called judicial reforms are no more than minor technical patches.
He Qinglian is a prominent Chinese author and economist. Currently based in the United States, she authored “China’s Pitfalls,” which concerns corruption in China’s economic reform of the 1990s, and “The Fog of Censorship: Media Control in China,” which addresses the manipulation and restriction of the press. She regularly writes on contemporary Chinese social and economic issues.
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