At least two recent articles in the Chinese media provide some answers to the question of why assigning responsibility (within the courts) in wrongful conviction cases (known in China as “mistaken cases”) is so difficult. ( A recent New York Times article has previously discussed the question as well and provided commentary by several well known authorities.) This brief blogpost looks at these two recent articles, which provide additional insight.
- “Russian doll” system of committee decisions
The first response can be found in an article in the official Chinese press, published 20-21 February, entitled “China’s judicial reform stepping into a deep water area facing people, power, and money.” The article sets out a response to the dissatisfaction of the public (and experts), which captures, in officialese, the core of the reason–decisions in high profile court cases are made in through a “Russian doll” (Matryoshka, the Russian nested doll) set of committee decisions.
Russian nesting dolls (from Wikipedia)
“For a long time, Chinese judicial organs [referring both to courts and procuracy] have internally formed an administrative work system. For example internally, in the courts, cases are approved and checked on by division chiefs and heads of courts level by level, and it is the person with the highest administrative position who has the final say, which created the situation in which the persons hearing the case do not decide it, and those deciding the case do not hear it. This not only affects judicial efficiency and justice, it also makes it difficult to pursue responsibility for mistaken cases.”
What this means in plain English is that Chinese courts exercise an administrative system in which all cases are approved by division chiefs or higher. For major cases, as well as cases in which the death penalty is proposed to be imposed, the case is forwarded to the judicial committee of the court. As I wrote over one year ago, although this has not been mentioned, judicial committees must have approved the original decisions in a number of cases recently revealed to have mistaken, such as:
the 1996 execution of Huugjilt, in Inner Mongolia;
The 1995 conviction of Tian Weidong, Chen Jianying and others in Hangzhou, Zhejiang.
One layer of the Russian doll is the judicial committee. In that December, 2014 blogpost, I described how judicial committees operate (and some proposals for judicial committee reform). Court legislation states that these committees “practice democratic centralism” and that their task is to “sum up judicial experience and to discuss important or difficult cases or other issues relating to judicial work.”
The reason that the panel that hears the case must follow the decision of the judicial committee is that judicial committees are designated as the “highest judicial organ” within a court and implement the principle of democratic centralism. Wang Bin, a Nanjing judge whom I quoted in that blogpost, stated that judicial committee members [made up of the court leadership] have neither the opportunity nor the time and energy to learn more about the specific circumstances of each case.Members are not required to state their view and rationale before voting. Decisions are made by a simple majority. Additionally, as I implied, during judicial committee consideration, members are aware of their bureaucratic rank vis a vis the court president and vice presidents. As Professor He Xin of City University noted in his study of judicial committees, since the decision is made collectively [by the judicial committee], no single committee member is held personally responsible.”
What is implied by the administrative system described by the statement in the official media is that the local political-legal committee or other Party authorities may liaise with the court leadership concerning high profile cases. That is the next layer of the Russian doll, and may involve higher level Party authorities.
Professor He’s study found that judicial committees had in many cases succumbed to external influences, while my own (more limited sample) found that external pressure was sometimes resisted. Pressure by local political-legal committees was likely involved in some of these mistaken cases, but liability is not pursued, for a similar rationale as Professor He’s–since the decision is made collectively, no one is held personally responsible.
What effect will the 2015 regulations aimed at reducing official interference in court cases have on this practice? As noted in this earlier blogpost, one of those regulations does not require the recording of certain types of guidance–that of “Party and government organs, professional associations, social public interest organizations and public institutions with administrative functions in accordance with law retained or permitted by people’s courts to follow the working procedures to submit consultative opinions in cases of national interest or societal public interest, may be not entered into information archive on prying, but relevant materials shall stored in the case file for future reference.” But will documents issued by Political Legal Committees at various levels really be placed in case files and made accessible to lawyers?
2. Why does affixing responsibility in mistaken cases take so long?
The author of the second article, published in a popular legal Wechat public account highlighted earlier, suggests reasons that it often takes 10 or more more years for mistaken cases to be redressed, and proposes that the SPC and SPP increase their staffs to review mistaken cases:
Ten years is the time it takes for two terms of the [local] Party Committee and the heads of the court and procuracy. That means that the heads of the Party Committee and court/procuracy have changed at least once or twice… [Why won’t it take less time?] It is because when the leaders who have had the final say still have their positions,…if they reverse the mistaken case and one can well imagine that they will not want to overturn a case in which they had the final say…There is hope …only when the leaders have retired, have become old or passed away, and a new leader is in position and takes the matter seriously.