The president of China's Supreme People's Court praised the country’s progress in advancing judicial reform over the past year during an annual government work report Tuesday to the National People’s Congress.
An earlier whistle-blower case by a Supreme Court judge tells a different story, which, observers say, may epitomize how China’s judicial system remains very opaque.
In his 40-minute-long speech, Zhou Qiang told nearly 3,000 members of the country’s largely rubber-stamp legislature that China’s courts at all levels have fully upheld the principles of legality, presumption of innocence and exclusion of unlawful evidence.
Wrongful convictions overturned
More than 1,800 wrongful convictions, including 10 major cases of miscarriages of justice, have been overturned in the past year, he added.
That was among more than 25 million cases that Chinese courts had tried and closed in 2018, according to Zhou.
“[We’ve] strengthened the mechanism to prevent and correct miscarriage of justice while strictly implementing the principle of excluding [the adoption of] unlawful evidence,” Zhou said.
Such a mechanism, however, exists in name only, argues rights lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan.
Liu noted that courts in China rarely take the initiative — a top- down approach — in re-opening trials that are problematic.
A top-down approach?
Instead, he added, most wrongful convictions in China are overturned in a bottom up format: repeated appeals by the victims or their families, some of whom even resorted to extreme measures to seize media attention so that their cases could be brought to light or stood chances of being reviewed again.
“Some people, who have been wrongfully accused, serve their jail terms and do not file any appeals. Nor do their family members appeal or lodge any complaints,” Liu said.
“What would truly be a mechanism to prevent the miscarriage of justice, is if under such circumstances, the Supreme People’s Court or the Supreme People’s Procuratorate would spot flaws in the cases and re-activate due process to review such cases, uncover mistakes and overturn rulings,” the Beijing-based lawyer added.
At Tuesday’s NPC session, Zhou highlighted other statistics, including that Chinese courts have put nearly 30,000 perpetrators of organized crime behind bars, including village- and city-level thugs and some 33,000 officials guilty of corruption or bribe-taking.
But, in contrast to the rosy performance of judicial advancement spoken of by Zhou, a recent whistle-blower case involving Wang Linqiang, a former assistant judge to Zhou’s top court, shed light on the practice of judicial interference or influence peddling in Chinese courts.
Wang was the judge for a long-running contract dispute and, in January, helped expose the loss of court documents in the second trial for the dispute that implicated high-ranking officials, including Zhou.
The court papers, which Wang claimed to be stolen in late 2016, detailed a mine ownership dispute between private firm Kechley Energy Investment and the state-owned Xian Institute of Geological and Mineral Exploration in northwestern China’s Shannxi province.
Notes that spelled out instructions from higher-ups, including Zhou and his deputy, were said to be among the missing papers, evidence Wang said shows that the court’s top leaders had interfered in the case’s ruling.
The case was first tried by a local court in Shannxi, which ruled in favor of Kechley in 2006. But the ruling was later overturned by the province’s high court in 2011.
Kecheley then appealed to the Supreme Court, which in late 2017, finalized its ruling in favor of Kechley.
But Wang revealed, in several pre-recorded video clips that went viral in December, how some of the case’s court papers had long been stolen from his Supreme Court office, where security was supposedly tight.
“I’d like to use this video clip to protect myself from unexpected mishap and save as an evidence,” Wang said in January.
Wang added that his superiors were not very eager to locate the papers when he reported the incident of missing papers.
A dramatic turn
The judge also noted that he was under pressure from his supervisors to rule in favor of the state-owned institute.
Things, however, took a dramatic turn late last month, when a joint investigation team, including members of the Communist Party’s central political legal affairs commission, the disciplinary commission, the top procuratorate and the Ministry of Public Security, concluded Wang was the one who stole the documents.
Wang’s whereabouts are unknown and he was last seen in a televised confession on state-run channel CCTV.
“I took them away on impulse partly to vent my anger, and partly to stop other [judges] from handling the case,” he said on CCTV in February.
Following the flip-flop of Wang’s whistle-blowing act, many have called China’s judicial independence into question.
Lawyer Liu said the fact that Wang was forced to make a televised confession before any trail has shown that the judiciary in China has no respect for the principle of presumption of innocence.
On Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging site, one user questioned why Wang “wanted to turn himself in?” and another wrote “such a sloppy ruling reached on TV only discredited the rule of law in China.”
Thousands of other posts in response to news of Wang’s confession were obviously censored, since they were no longer available.