Experts point to crackdown on national security and legal system that encourages guilty pleas
By Helen Davidson and Amy Hawkins
May 29, 2023
Police officers use a drone to patrol a street in Altay, Xinjiang province. Photograph: Costfoto/NurPhoto/Shutterstock
Chinese courts prosecuted 8.3 million people in the five years to 2022, a 12% increase on the previous period. There was also a nearly 20% increase in the number of protests against court rulings.
The figures released by the supreme people’s procuratorate (SPP) in March give a glimpse of how China’s notoriously opaque justice system has operated in recent years, amid a tightening domestic security environment.
Zhang Jun, the outgoing director of the SPP, said prosecutions for violent crimes decreased by 31.7%, while prosecutions for internet-based crimes, such as gambling, fraud and the dissemination of obscene materials, increased by 43.3%.
A previous SPP report noted that there had been 1,400 national security prosecutions between 2018 and 2022, but this was not mentioned in the official work report.
Under President Xi Jinping, Chinese authorities have increased their focus on alleged crimes of national and public security, including the targeting of dissidents, protesters and human rights lawyers.
This month new amendments to anti-espionage laws came into force, broadening their scope in a manner that legal experts warned could further heighten risk to foreign individuals and organisations operating in the country.
Authorities have targeted foreign businesses working in the due diligence and consulting field with raids and arrests, and in recent years dozens of foreigners or Chinese people working for foreign organisations have been detained on national security grounds.
National security trials, often related to accusations of espionage or subversion, are often held in secret, with little transparency around evidence, rulings and sentences. The data did not include specifics beyond the number of prosecutions.
Dr Enshen Li, a senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Queensland, said the jump in prosecutions could reflect a trend seen around the world of overcriminalisation by governments, and to a system in place since 2016 that encourages defendants to plead guilty in exchange for a lenient sentence.
“This has been applied to around 90% of handled criminal cases over the last few years and it has greatly increased the efficiency of case processing in the criminal justice system, which makes criminal prosecution much easier than before.”
In a system where the conviction rate for criminal trials is nearly 100%, the plea leniency system has been a powerful incentive for defendants to plead guilty and has also contributed to a stark drop in the number of pre-trial detentions. Between 2018 and 2022, the pre-trial detention rate dropped from 54.9% to 26.7%, a record low.
“The Chinese system has always been as much about resolution as about punishment and deterrence,” said Jeremy Daum, a research scholar at the Paul Tsai China Center at Yale Law School.
The SPP said its role included ensuring investigations and prosecutions were conducted legally and fairly. It said it had refused 818,000 arrests proposed by public security organs, an increase of 30%.
But the data also showed a significant jump in the number of appeals lodged against criminal judgments, which Li said referred only to appeals by prosecutors against convictions or sentences.
The SPP reported 41,000 protests were lodged against criminal judgments believed to be erroneous, an 18.9% increase on the previous reporting period.
Li noted that this refers to appeals made by prosecutors, not defendants. Daum noted that there has been a push in recent years for prosecutors and judges to be seen to be stopping “wrongful cases”.
That is both to boost the system’s public legitimacy and to protect judges. In 2017 the supreme people’s court introduced a “lifetime responsibility” system for judges, meaning that even after they retire they can be challenged on the quality of their cases. This has been described as a “sword of Damocles hanging over judges” by senior judges.
The SPP also revealed 78,000 officials, including more than 100 who were at or above provincial leader or ministerial level, were prosecuted for corruption and bribery in the five-year period. Since coming to power, Xi has run a sweeping corruption crackdown on Chinese political elites.
Chi Hui Lin contributed to this report