Margaret K. Lewis. A Review of China’s Record on Torture. University of Nottingham Blog

February 9, 2016

When visiting Washington DC in November 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping stated that “China has made enormous progress in human rights. That’s a fact recognized by all the people of the world.” The statement is true when viewed against the glaring human rights abuses committed under Mao Zedong. Yet the December 2015 United Nations report on China’s compliance with the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment presents a bleak view of the realities on the ground in China today.

To be fair, the Chinese government has introduced discrete reforms that could decrease the prevalence of torture. The Committee against Torture flagged a number of these positive aspects in its Concluding Observations. Yet each of these reforms needs to be analyzed with a critical eye because, as Teng Biao, a Chinese human rights lawyer, astutely explained, “The major problem with rule of law in mainland China is not establishing legal provisions but rather implementing laws.” And here lies the key problem: the Chinese government places perpetuating one-party rule above a robust commitment to the rule of law and human rights.

For example, the 2012 amendments to the Criminal Procedure Law that introduced procedures for excluding illegally obtained evidence were welcomed with great fanfare. Four years later, use of these procedures is extremely limited. Courts should rarely have to exclude evidence if police and prosecutors are doing their jobs correctly and not relying on illegally obtained evidence. That said, ongoing concerns about the courts’ unwillingness and even inability to stand up to the police coupled with personal accounts of coerced confessions stretch the bounds of credulity that the careful work of police and prosecutors accounts for the rare invocation of these rules.

One of the most exciting recent developments in criminal procedure reforms has been the use of audio and video recordings of interrogations. This reform was initially aimed at major criminal cases, such as when a defendant faces life imprisonment or the death penalty. China has since broadened use of recordings with statements by the Ministry of Public Security in late 2015 that videotaping would be expanded to all criminal cases. The hope is that recording interrogations will both provide evidence of how individual cases are handled and encourage a change in police culture away from coercive practices.

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