The pronouncement taps into a wider debate occurring inside China over the future of the nation’s judicial branch, which has historically been marred by corruption and political infighting. “It’s preferable to release someone wrongfully, than convict someone wrongfully,” Shen Deyong, the executive vice-president of the Supreme People’s Court, wrote last year in the People’s Court Daily. “If a true criminal is released, heaven will not collapse, but if an unlucky citizen is wrongfully convicted, heaven will fall.”
Indeed, the report comes amid widespread condemnation of the Chinese judicial system, which rights groups assert is nothing more than a pipeline to conviction. The U.S. State Department says the courts often hand down guilty verdicts without any deliberation, which wildly inflates their conviction rates. Police routinely browbeat defendants into offering confessions that may not be truthful.
Courts often punished defendants who refused to acknowledge guilt with harsher sentences than those who confessed. The appeals process rarely reversed convictions. Appeals processes failed to provide sufficient avenues for review, and remedies for violations of defendants’ rights were inadequate.
Such problems were on full display in 2011 when a Henan Province farmer named Zhao Zuohai was released from prison after serving 11 years because the woman he was convicted of murdering was actually very much alive and living at home.
Still, despite such anecdotes and mounting resistance, the conviction rate in the country has stayed the same. What’s more, rights activists say, Chinese courts refused last year to hear one lawsuit involving citizen welfare, such as concerns over air pollution.
“The year 2013 marked the darkest year in the history of China’s rule of law,” Wang Cailiang, the director of Beijing’s Cailiang Law Firm told Agence France-Presse.
During that same time, the nation also wracked up an incredible conviction rate for those charged with corruption or graft. Between 2008 and mid-2013, nearly 150,000 were investigated for corruption.
The acquittal rate: less than 0.1 percent.