Is it possible to get a fair trial in China?

Occasionally we will hear of a legal victory for “the little guy” in China that gives us a lot of hope and encouragement. But the odds are still heavily stacked against a fair trial for the defendant, and such happy endings seem to be few and far between. Horror stories are more common. Take this case, for example.

At his most desperate, when he had no more borrowed money for his son’s legal defense, Xie Yujun went to a hospital. He knew of China’s black market in body parts. He wanted to sell his eyes. He was refused.

Xie Yujun said he is obligated to defend his son to protect the reputation of the entire family. “I will appeal for my son until the day I die.”
Articles in this series will periodically examine the struggle in China over the creation of a modern legal system.

Mr. Xie, 60, is no stranger to desperate acts, if by necessity. His son was charged with a savage knife attack here in rural Anhui Province that left a mother and daughter badly wounded. The police suspected the son because of a property dispute between the families. But Mr. Xie believed the case was deeply flawed: the victims never identified the attacker. The only evidence was a questionable shoeprint. Police misconduct was blatant.

Mr. Xie’s problem was convincing a court. His son’s lawyers had no chance to question witnesses or, initially, to examine evidence. At one point, Mr. Xie himself sneaked into a prison to interview a witness. Even a tantalizing appeals court victory proved hollow. The son was tried again and sentenced to life in prison.

“There must be one person in the Communist Party who is honest and who believes in justice,” Mr. Xie said. “If I can’t even find one, then the party is not going to last long.”

China’s authoritarian government once relied on ideology and brute force to bind and regulate society. Now, it is asking citizens like Mr. Xie to have faith in the country’s legal system to resolve disputes and mete out justice.

But Mr. Xie’s plaintive cry poses a fundamental question about China’s promise of rule of law: Is it possible for a criminal defendant to get a fair trial?

This is one of those epic-length stories that still make the NYT the best newspaper in the world. It follows the investigation in painstaking detail, and also looks at the inherent absurdities of China’s legal system: dfefense attorneys can be arrested for defending their clients “too aggressively”; judges can simply ignore evidence and find the defendant guilty if they feel it is for “the greater societal good – in this case, a conviction to soothe public anxiety about a grisly crime”; confessions are routinely coerced.

It won’t make your weekend any more cheerful, but it’s a great article.

The Discussion: 10 Comments

So tragic.

November 12, 2005 @ 3:16 pm | Comment

To ask whether it is possible to get a “fair trial” in China entirely misses the point. There is simply no such thing as a trial as that term is understood in a free society — the presentation of evidence by both sides to a neutral independant finder of fact — in China.

You cannot get a fair trial in China becuase the, under the Chinese system, there is simply no such thing as a fair trial in China. The Chinese judicial system is no more capable of producing a fair trial than a milk cow is of producing beer.

November 12, 2005 @ 9:56 pm | Comment

True Conrad, but it seems that this guy isn’t so much looking for a “fair” trial as we would understand it in the West, but the traditional Chinese equivalent, an official who cares about justice and who will intercede on the behalf of a “little guy”. It’s sad that he’s having so much trouble finding one.

November 13, 2005 @ 2:02 am | Comment

So much progress, yet so very far to go …

November 13, 2005 @ 4:45 am | Comment

*cough, cough* PRESUMPTION OF INNOCENCE *cough, cough*

I guess that phrase isn’t in the Chinese judiciary’s vocabulary.

November 13, 2005 @ 7:35 am | Comment

Judges can simply ignore evidence and find the defendant guilty if they feel it is for “the greater societal good – in this case, a conviction to soothe public anxiety about a grisly crime”; confessions are routinely coerced.

I’ve heard from Chinese friends that it’s not uncommon for unlucky people to be arrested (and executed) when the police aren’t able to catch the real criminal. I wouldn’t have expected Chinese officials to actually justify the practise.

November 13, 2005 @ 12:31 pm | Comment

Two things the old KGB used to say:

1. “Give us the man and we’ll find the crime.”

2. “Just because we haven’t arrested you yet, doesn’t mean you’re not guilty of something.”

This isn’t really so much a Chinese problem, as a Communist problem.
China won’t develop any authentic legal system until the Communist dictatorship ends – because, Communism is categorically hostile to Law. The whole ideology is premised on a rejection of any kind of fairness or compassion. And the Communist Party was started by a pack of criminals. It’s impossible to reform into any kind of law-abiding party.

November 13, 2005 @ 8:14 pm | Comment

“Presumption of innocence”?

Under Chinese law, an arrest in a criminal matter presupposes guilt. An arrest alone is sufficient to deprive the accused of his basic rights and freedom.

As the Chinese Justice Minister put it: “we will not meddle in the capitalist ‘presumed innocence’ nonsense. We will seek truth from facts.

November 13, 2005 @ 9:02 pm | Comment

Lets face it people, you cannot even get a fair trial in the West if you cannot afford to hire a good lawyer. So what chance do you get for a fair trial in China??

November 22, 2005 @ 4:33 pm | Comment

At least you get an open trial, all on the record with the right to appeal.

November 23, 2005 @ 8:14 pm | Comment

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