On Thursday, May 9th, 2013, USALI Executive Director Ira Belkin and Affiliated Fellow Maggie Lewis presented their views on Reeducation Through Labor (RETL) at the Congressional-Executive Commission on China's (CECC) Roundtable, "The End of Reeducation Through Labor? Recent Developments and the Prospects for Reform."
This article was originally published in The Economist on July 26, 2013 under the title, "The Rule of Law: Bizarrely Consistent."
THOSE who see legal reform in China as a half-full glass point to encouraging signs of progress—including to some of the harshest and most easily abused features of the nation’s criminal code. Amendments adopted last year seek to prevent the coercion of false confessions. Legal scholars—and, more intriguingly, judicial officials—now openly discuss the need to reduce wrongful convictions. Meanwhile, use of the death penalty has declined dramatically over the past decade, with executions falling from roughly 12,000 in 2002 to 3,000 last year.
Yet when it comes to political agitators, China’s legal system is as harsh as ever. The past few days have seen a spate of incidents involving the harassment and detention of rights activists and advocates of the rule of law. On July 16th Xu Zhiyong, a noted Beijing law lecturer held under house arrest since April, was formally detained, reportedly under charges of “assembling a crowd to disrupt order in a public place”.
Mr Xu has had previous run-ins with the authorities, though working peacefully within the system when calling for officials to follow the law more carefully, and for citizens to have improved civil and political rights. His own lawyer, Liu Weiguo, was also taken into custody when trying to visit his client. Perhaps Mr Xu’s chief offence is to have argued for greater disclosure of officials’ personal assets. That this echoes the government’s own recent rhetoric has not been enough to keep him safe.
The crackdown, which extended to the closing of another group in the capital advocating the rule of law, has attracted criticism from human-rights organisations abroad, a call from the American government for Mr Xu’s release, and an open letter signed by hundreds of Chinese academics, journalists and business people. Beyond calling for Mr Xu’s release and the lifting of bans on internet and media discussion of his case, the letter says the government must “use the Xu Zhiyong case as a mirror” to reflect deeply on its policies and “create a tolerant and favourable environment for the healthy development of civil society”.
These events come even as the government continues its rhetoric about the importance of legal reform. Prompted by a series of widely publicised cases in which criminal convictions were conclusively found to be in error, officials have become increasingly open about the problem of wrongful convictions.
Much of the discussion focuses on criminal confessions coerced by police, whether through torture and abuse or through their untrammelled authority in pressing suspects. It marks a departure from past practice, when the police and legal system were held to be infallible. In May a senior official at the Supreme People’s Court, Shen Deyong, urged legal cadres “to be alert” to the problem. Many, he complained, “are still influenced by the presumption of a suspect’s guilt”.
According to Ira Belkin, who runs the US-Asia Law Institute at New York University, the seeming contradiction between a crackdown on activists and genuine moves towards reform is, in fact, “bizarrely consistent”. The key, he says, is the focus by the Communist Party on social stability—ie, not only the risk of social unrest, but of any challenge to its authority. Stability depends upon public trust in the legal system, which is likely to improve when wrongful convictions are stopped.
At the same time, Mr Belkin says, when the authorities identify people as troublemakers, “they show no mercy in order to deter them and others”. Mr Belkin’s own belief, though, is that greater tolerance of peaceful critics of government would contribute more to social stability than the usual hardline approach to dissent laid down by Mao Zedong. For now, at least, the government seems unwilling to put that idea to the test.
On Tuesday, September 24, 2013 USALI directors Jerome Cohen and Ira Belkin sat down with Zhai Guoqiang, research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), to talk about current debates in China over the topic of constitutionalism.
In front of an audience of over twenty students and scholars from NYU Law, Fordham Law and Columbia Law, Professor Zhai argued that, despite news articles depicting China as increasingly antagonistic toward both “constitutionalism” (xianzheng) and “constitutional law” (xianfa), only a small fraction of Chinese legal scholars take issue with these topics. At present, Professor Zhai contended, the Constitution mainly operates as a declaration of political ideals rather than an authoritative document on the country’s overarching laws, and concluded that the more pertinent issue is the lack of constitutional review in the Chinese legal system, a situation which prevents legal questions regarding the Constitution from being dealt with effectively.
Professor Zhai’s comments were followed by a Q&A session, during which the audience asked questions concerning the future of constitutional law in China, early debates on this topic between Mao Zedong and Wang Ming, and the extent to which the Constitution can be used to protect citizens’ rights.
For more on this topic, please follow this link.
On August 28, 2013, the trial of Bo Xilai, former Party Secretary of Chongqing, has been called the most important political trial in China in decades. On Wednesday, August 28, the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations (NCUSCR) convened a discussion with two American experts on Chinese legal development and politics, Ira Belkin and Cheng Li, respectively. In an on-the-record teleconference moderated by NCUSCR President Steve Orlins, the two reflected on the trial and its implications for law and politics in China, and on the Sino-U.S. relationship.
To listen to the teleconference, please follow this link.
USALI Executive Director Ira Belkin and USALI Visiting Scholar Teng Biao were cited in this American Bar Association article from December 2015:
Innocence project movement in China rises to aid the wrongfully convicted
POSTED DEC 01, 2015 02:30 AM CST
BY ANTHONY LIN
China's death penalty train, widely believed to be the world's most active, is showing some signs of slowing down. And domestic innocence projects may be having an effect, though small, on getting wrongful convictions in capital crimes overturned.
China may execute more people every year than the rest of the world combined. Amnesty International believes that to be the case—though it declines to estimate how many executions are carried out because it is pushing China to reveal the figure, currently a state secret. The Dui Hua Foundation, a San Francisco-based human rights group, reckons 2,400 people received the death penalty in China in 2013. That compares to 369 in Iran, the next-highest in executions, and 39 in the United States.
Dui Hua estimates the 2013 figure was down 20 percent from 2012. The Chinese government is considering a reduction in the number of offenses eligible for capital punishment from 55 to 46. And innocence projects are arising to push for the exonerations of those who have been wrongfully convicted of capital crimes.
Read the entire article here: http://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/innocence_project_movement_in_china_rises_to_aid_the_wrongfully_convicted