A Whitened White Paper on Human Rights

by | Sep 19, 2016

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About George G. Chen

Dr. George G. Chen is a research associate and expert on China’s judicial system and legal policies at the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERCIS) based in Berlin. He is the author of Copyright and International Negotiations: An Engine of Free Expression in China?, Cambridge University Press (forthcoming). He has advised the Chinese and European governments on a variety of legal projects within the framework of the Sino-EU-Dialogue on the State of Rule of Law. Chen has a PhD in law from the University of Göttingen.


George G. Chen, “A Whitened White Paper on Human Rights” (OxHRH Blog, 19 September 2016) <https://ohrh.law.ox.ac.uk/a-whitened-white-paper-on-human-rights/> [Date of access].

The Chinese government claims to have made stunning progress in improving the human rights situation in the country through reforming its judicial system. But its new White Paper titled “New Progress in the Judicial Protection of Human Rights in China”, published on 12 September 2016, is a jumble of selective statistics and unsubstantiated claims. The paper is China’s first comprehensive assessment of the human rights situation in its judicial branch.

A review of China’s judicial system is a laudable effort and long overdue. Unfortunately, the new paper does not provide reliable information and raises fundamental questions of legitimacy. The State Council’s positive self-assessment stands in sharp contrast to reports on the continuing lack of fair legal process within China. It also ignores accusations of human rights violations from the United Nations (UN) and other outside parties. Instead, it presents selective statistics and unsubstantiated claims. It lists a number of recent reforms in the judicial system, which point in the right direction, but it fails to give a realistic account of China’s law enforcement practices.

No protection for lawyers

The paper claims to have improved citizens’ access to justice: several documents issued by China’s judicial authorities all enshrine lawyers’ rights to practise. This may sound good on paper, but is hardly reassuring to China’s human rights lawyers who have been harassed and detained by authorities in a sustained and relentless crackdown throughout the past year. In contrast, the UN has made repeated appeals for China to improve the treatment of lawyers and human rights activists. A recent report from the UN Human Rights Council still contains a variety of allegations against China in this respect.

Rampant judicial misconduct

The paper releases a plethora of seemingly positive statistics to show the “effective” achievements of the government in correcting alleged misconduct in the judiciary. However, the paper delivers merely selective evidence and omits important facts. For example, it notes that public prosecutors launched appeals in 6,591 criminal cases in 2015, which were allegedly wrongly decided by courts. Yet, the fact that so many court decisions had to be “corrected” would show how rampant unlawful practices remain in China. Besides, the White Paper gives no information on appeals launched by defendants, the grounds on which procuratorates launched appeals, or whether the revised decisions were the result of fair and open trials.

Use of death penalty

The White Paper stresses cautious use of death penalty, stating that it is only used on a “very small number of extremely serious criminal offenders”. In 2011, China abolished the death penalty for a number of non-violent offenses such as the smuggling of wildlife. However, other economic crimes, such as embezzlement, which would lead to prison sentences in most other countries, remain on the list. The paper also keeps silent on the total number of executions, which Amnesty International estimates to be higher than the number of all other countries combined. In China, this number is treated as a state secret, and the White Paper does not lift this taboo.

Extortion of confessions

According to the paper, the procuratorial organs dealt with 31,874 cases of abusive illegal conduct such as compulsory measures and unlawfully obtained evidence in 2015. The paper also proclaims to supervise detention facilities to prevent them from “extorting confession by torture”. Yet, the situation of crime suspects and detainees in China has worsened in the recent past. The public confessions of prominent human rights lawyers this year, broadcast on television or published as newspaper interviews, are unprecedented and contravene the fundamental principle of rule of law.

If China really wanted to reform its judicial system, it would be better off relying on outside assessments and advice than on its White Paper. In 2005, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture submitted a report to the UN after a visit to China, in which he made several recommendations for eliminating injustice in China’s judicial system. A stop to forced confessions and the prosecution of dissidents based on charges of vaguely defined political crimes were at the top of that list. As long as China’s leaders do not address these issues, such White Papers will amount to nothing but propaganda.

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