how does the Chinese criminal justice system work?

(Inspired by the GD thread about an allegedly mentally ill man executed in the People’s Republic of China for drug smuggling. I say “allegedly” out of a sense of fairness to the Chinese bench, even though it seems unlikely the man was anywhere close to sane.)

How does the Chinese criminal justice system work, and is there any sort of expert consensus on how well it works? China’s clearly far from a democratic state with an independent judiciary, so it’s to be expected (and regretted) that politically-charged or high-publicity cases might not get a fair shake. But what about ordinary, everyday crime? If I’m accused of, oh, stealing a loaf of bread, how likely am I to get a fair trial?

While we like to hold everyone to a high humanitarian standard, the truth is that no justice system is perfect. China had every right to execute someone for smuggling that amount of heroine. It wouldn’t be the only country to have such strict laws concerning narcotics/opiates.

By our standards, what China did was wrong, but China doesn’t have to operate by our standards. They are a sovereign nation and can pretty much do as they please within their borders.

In a nutshell, a trial in China is handled by a Judge or a panel of Judges. A state Prosecuter handles the proesecution and there is a provision for a defense (Right to an attorney).

There are 4 levels of courts to appeal through. - This case did get seen by the Chinese Supreme Court.

The case doesn’t show any evidence of being mishandled, railroaded or staged in any way. The guy did smuggle 9 kilos of heroine or something like that. The penalty for that in China is execution.

There’s no evidence China ever identified this guy as mentally deficient- by their standards, which are the standards that apply.

Did they apply the standards that apply?

With respect, I’d like to learn more about how the system works in general - we’re already discussing the recent execution in some detail over in GD.

It’s not a complex system.

You get accused of a crime and arrested.

A prosecutor investigates and presses charges and takes the case before a Judge or Panel of Judges. Defense attorneys are assigned or chosen. The nature of the crime may escalate the crime past the lowest level of courts or not and determine if the case will be tried before a judge or panel of judges.

The trial occurs similar to a trial everywhere else. Evidence is presented, people state their case, etc. The judge issue a verdict and a sentence. The case is eligable for one appeal - and the judgement in that appeal is final. If the sentence is the death penalty there is an automatic appeal process to the supreme court (the supreme court has to approve the death sentence is appropriate for the crime).

So there are no juries.

What about the presumption of innocence? self-incrimination?

Presumed innocent.
No right against self-incrimination.

I find that interesting. I’ve always assumed that outside of the US, that the general guideline is “guilty until proven innocent” and that once The Man says you’re guilty, everything else is just a formality. But I guess not.

I think it’s possible to have a mixed bench consisting of one professional judge and two lay “People’s Assesors” as in the old Soviet Union (& modern Russia :confused:). I don’t know how accurate Red Corner (starring Richard Gere) is (or what’s changed since it came out), but it’s plot revolves around a Chinese criminal trial and features alot of courtroom scenes.

You have? * Really?* Everywhere outside the US? Or did you mean “outside the West”? Or “in non-democracies”?

I find it very odd to hear that someone could think that about, say, the UK, or Australia, or Canada, or any number of Western countries.

You missed a major point: There are two types of courts. One is the Adversarial System that we have in the United States. In this system, the judge is a neutral party and is only there to make sure the proceedings are followed. The prosecutor and defense are suppose to make their own cases. The other is the Inquisitorial System where the judge takes an active roll in questioning the witnesses and determining what happened.

The Chinese System is an Inquisitorial System and is similar to the French system where Judges are suppose to take an active roll in the case and determine what happened. There are no juries in the Chinese system (in France, juries are a relatively new feature.). Also, unlike the French, the court does not prosecute. There is an independent prosecutor that is appointed by the state. However, like in France, there is no right to remain silent. The judge’s job is to get to the truth, and you can be compelled to testify against yourself.

Officially, judges are elected to a maximum of two five year terms, but since elections are under a communist system, that basically means they’re appointed by the party and can be influenced by the party. Most cases are probably fair, but if the party itself or a high up party member has a stake in the outcome, you might be in trouble.

The presumption of innocence is common in almost all judicial systems and is not just an Anglo-Saxon phenomenon. What is found in Anglo-Saxon tradition, but not necessarily in other traditions the right against self incrimination, juries, and the adversarial system of running the court.

On paper, the Chinese system is very much like the ones found in other democratic countries, but like all other government operations in China, it is under the eye of the Communist Party. Depending upon the mood of the party, Judges maybe well trained and quite professional, or party hacks with little training. I believe that China is leaning towards training its judges and running its judiciary in a more professional manner. But that can change.

China has a justice system? Go figure.

Here’s Wiki’s rather detailed explanationif you’re interested in learning more (instead of making snarky drive-by posts).

Note that the system as a whole is notoriously corrupt.

For example, there is this case from my Chinese hometown. A local party official decided he wanted to have sex with a very young virgin. According to some Chinese traditions, sex with young girls has a restorative effect, and this man was in the habit of screwing one each year as a sort of birthday present to himself. He went to a restaurant and asked the owner to find him one. After some negotiation he found a 12 year old girl and did his thing. Later he got caught and put on trial. He was found innocent.

His defense? He had NO IDEA that she was 12. He thought she was surely 18. Now, if you’ve seen a lot of Chinese 12 year olds, you will recognize this is patently absurd. 12 year olds in China are clearly and obviously children- we’d probably peg most of them at 9 or so. Anyway, somehow that defense worked.

There are also a number of extremely vaguely defined political crimes, such as “subverting state power.” These have no fixed meaning and can be used to get rid of basically anyone who is giving you trouble. Right now there is a notable dissident who is scheduled to begin his trial. There is no question of the outcome.

Finally, there are a growing number of “black prisons” where people get locked up and harassed without any trial. This is a growing problem among people from the countryside travelling to Beijing looking to petition the government. They end up just snatched up off the street and locked away for a while. It’s getting so bad that even state newspapers are starting to report on the problem.

Why is else their reputation so bad? One big one is that they have a lot of incentives to imprison people. Organs are regularly harvested from freshly executed prisoners and sold to foreigners for transplants at a huge profit. Executions are sometimes scheduled around operation appointments, and there are even hospitals that are purposefully built next to prisons. Forced labor is also very common, with some unknown number of prisoners working in public and private factories. It’s to the point where there is an entire province that is basically dedicated to forced labor manufacturing. But it’s hard to know exactly what goes on, since it is all very carefully guarded.

It works this way: you’re accused of a crime, and then shot so that they can harvest your organs to make Soylent Green chow mein. Sorry, my esteem of China’s government is about the same as my esteem for earthworms.

That’s very misleading. They use them for transplant organs, and do not eat the executed. There are no human byproducts in Chinese food except for incidences like the human hair being used to make amino acid for soy sauce and that got banned.

Please don’t travel overseas, you don’t want to re-inforce the idea of the “American tourist”.


Let’s keep this discussion factual, and refrain from this kind of snarky comment, whether about the Chinese system or other posters. No warnings issued.

General Questions Moderator

1)Yes, the presumption of innocence is something that works differently in common law systems than in an Inquisitorial system. In a common law system, the basic premise is that “he who asserts, must prove”. So in a criminal trial, the state/crown/commonwealth is claiming that the person is guilty, they must prove it, if they fail to satisfy the tribunral of fact of the truth of their assertion, the assertion fails and the person goes free.

  1. I can’t comment on self incrimination in the Chinese legal system, but I will point out that there is a difference in being forced to testify, against which there is generally no protection in tge legal system and often applies even to the accused to an extent and being forced to give answers which may cause you to face criminal proceedings, against which there is a protection.

  2. On juries, you need to remember as pointed out in a recent High Court case in England, in many countries juries are viewed with suspicion, they feel that it is risky and bizzare to entrust matters of liberty in the hands of untrained laymen, who deliberate in secret and don’t have to give a reason for theire decision.

Because of Napoleon conquering half of Western Europe, a lot of countries are modeled on the French system and not the Anglo system, which means no juries.

The idea of “In dubio pro reo” (In case of doubt, decide in favour of the accused) is widespread also because it comes from the Roman system. It means that if the prosectur can’t conclusivly prove that the accused did commit the crime, the accused must be set free - presumption of innocence in other terms.

And yes, there are justice systems outside the US. Many people think that the current state of the system on the US, esp. with electing prosecutors, plea deals, and the actual selection of juries, makes the system far less just than the European systems.
The problem is that the misconception that the only country with a real justice system is the US fuels the case of US refusing their citizens to be put in front of a court in any other country (along with that weird notion that allowing other countries somehow infringes on the rights of the US), which makes other countries a bit angry when US citizens break the law over there.