e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
Although the law states the courts shall exercise judicial power independently, without interference from administrative organs, social organizations, and individuals, the judiciary did not exercise judicial power independently. Judges regularly received political guidance on pending cases, including instructions on how to rule, from both the government and the CCP, particularly in politically sensitive cases. The CCP Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission have the authority to review and direct court operations at all levels of the judiciary. All judicial and procuratorate appointments require approval by the CCP Organization Department.
Corruption often influenced court decisions since safeguards against judicial corruption were vague and poorly enforced. Local governments appointed and paid local court judges and, as a result, often exerted influence over the rulings of those judges.
A CCP-controlled committee decided most major cases, and the duty of trial and appellate court judges was to craft a legal justification for the committee’s decision.
Courts are not authorized to rule on the constitutionality of legislation. The law permits organizations or individuals to question the constitutionality of laws and regulations, but a constitutional challenge may be directed only to the promulgating legislative body. Lawyers had little or no opportunity to rely on constitutional claims in litigation.
Media sources indicated public security authorities used televised confessions of lawyers, foreign and domestic bloggers, journalists, and business executives to establish guilt before their criminal trial proceedings began. In some cases these confessions were likely a precondition for release. NGOs asserted such statements were likely coerced, perhaps by torture, and some detainees who confessed recanted upon release and confirmed their confessions had been coerced. No provision in the law allows the pretrial broadcast of confessions by criminal suspects.
In February, United Kingdom media regulator Ofcom cancelled the broadcast license of China Global Television Network, the international news channel of China Central Television, for having insufficient editorial independence from the PRC government and the CCP. In July 2020 Ofcom found in its formal investigation that China Global Television Network broadcast in 2013 and 2014 a confession forced from a British private investigator imprisoned in China. “Judicial independence” remained one of the subjects the CCP reportedly ordered university professors not to discuss (see section 2.a., Academic Freedom and Cultural Events).
Although the law reaffirms the presumption of innocence, the criminal justice system remained biased toward a presumption of guilt, especially in high-profile or politically sensitive cases.
Courts often punished defendants who refused to acknowledge guilt with harsher sentences than those who confessed. The appeals process rarely reversed convictions, and it failed to provide sufficient avenues for review. Remedies for violations of defendants’ rights were inadequate.
Regulations of the Supreme People’s Court required trials to be open to the public, except in cases involving state secrets, privacy issues, minors, or – if requested by a party to the proceedings – commercial secrets. Authorities used the state secrets provision to keep politically sensitive proceedings closed to the public, sometimes even to family members, and to withhold a defendant’s access to defense counsel. Court regulations stipulate that foreigners with valid identification should be allowed to observe trials under the same criteria as citizens, but in practice foreigners were permitted to attend court proceedings only by invitation. As in past years, authorities barred foreign diplomats and journalists from attending several trials. In some instances authorities reclassified trials as “state secrets” cases or otherwise closed them to the public.
Regulations require the release of court judgments online and stipulate court officials should release judgments, except those involving state secrets and juvenile suspects, within seven days of their adoption. Courts did not post all judgments. They had wide discretion not to post if they found posting the judgment could be considered “inappropriate.” Many political cases did not have judgments posted.
Individuals facing administrative detention do not have the right to seek legal counsel. Criminal defendants are eligible for legal assistance, but the vast majority of criminal defendants went to trial without a lawyer.
Lawyers are required to be members of the CCP-controlled All-China Lawyers Association, and the Ministry of Justice requires all lawyers to pledge their loyalty to the leadership of the CCP upon issuance or annual renewal of their license to practice law. The CCP continued to require law firms with three or more party members to form a CCP unit within the firm.
Despite the government’s stated efforts to improve lawyers’ access to their clients, in 2017 the head of the All-China Lawyers Association told China Youth Daily that defense attorneys had taken part in less than 30 percent of criminal cases. In particular, human rights lawyers reported authorities did not permit them to defend certain clients or threatened them with punishment if they chose to do so. On November 21, China Change reported that more than 40 lawyers lost their license due to their human rights work since 2016. Some lawyers declined to represent defendants in politically sensitive cases, and such defendants frequently found it difficult to find an attorney. In some instances authorities prevented defendant-selected attorneys from taking the case and instead appointed their own attorney.
The government suspended or revoked the business licenses or law licenses of numerous lawyers who took on sensitive cases such as defending prodemocracy dissidents, house-church activists, Falun Gong practitioners, or government critics. Authorities used the annual licensing review process administered by the All-China Lawyers Association to withhold or delay the renewal of professional lawyers’ licenses. In October the association issued new guidelines that banned lawyers from speaking about cases publicly, including organizing press conferences and petitions, publishing open letters, or engaging in any public advocacy work.
Other government tactics to intimidate or otherwise pressure human rights lawyers included unlawful detention, vague “investigations” of legal offices, disbarment, harassment, physical intimidation, and denial of access to evidence and to clients.
On February 2, media reported that Ren Quanniu, a human rights lawyer based in Zhengzhou who represented activists and journalists, learned the Henan Provincial Judicial Department had revoked his license. In March judicial authorities in Zhengzhou informed the Henan Guidao Law Firm where Ren worked that it must shut down. Media further reported that in early July municipal authorities had blacklisted Ren and prohibited him from starting his own legal consultancy business.
In October the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Justice revoked Lin Qilei’s legal license on the basis that the law firm to which Lin belonged had been deregistered, despite multiple attempts by Lin to apply for registration. Lin’s firm, Beijing Ruikai Law Firm, had handled many cases on behalf of religious adherents and prodemocracy supporters.
On December 16, the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Justice revoked Liang Xiaojun’s legal license, citing his social media posts that were critical of Marxism and referred to the Falun Gong as a religion. Liang represented many human rights defenders, activists, and other disbarred lawyers during his legal career.
The law governing the legal profession criminalizes attorneys’ actions that “insult, defame, or threaten judicial officers,” “do not heed the court’s admonition,” or “severely disrupt courtroom order.” The law also criminalizes disclosing client or case information to media outlets or using protests, media, or other means to influence court decisions. Violators face fines and up to three years in prison.
Regulations also stipulate detention center officials should either allow defense attorneys to meet suspects or defendants or explain why the meeting cannot be arranged at that time. The regulations specify that a meeting should be arranged within 48 hours. Procuratorates and courts should allow defense attorneys to access and read case files within three working days. The time and frequency of opportunities available for defense attorneys to read case files shall not be limited, according to the guidelines. In some sensitive cases, lawyers had no pretrial access to their clients, had limited time to review evidence, and were not allowed to communicate with defendants during trials. In contravention of the law, criminal defendants frequently were not assigned an attorney until a case was brought to court. The law stipulates the spoken and written language of criminal proceedings shall be conducted in the language common to the specific locality, with government interpreters providing language services for defendants not proficient in the local language. Observers noted trials were predominantly conducted in Mandarin Chinese, even in non-Mandarin-speaking areas, with interpreters provided for defendants who did not speak the language.
Mechanisms allowing defendants to confront their accusers were inadequate. Only a small percentage of trials reportedly involved witnesses. Judges retained significant discretion over whether live witness testimony was required or even allowed. In most criminal trials, prosecutors read witness statements, which neither the defendants nor their lawyers had an opportunity to rebut through cross-examination. Although the law states pretrial witness statements cannot serve as the sole basis for conviction, prosecutors relied heavily on such statements. Defense attorneys had no authority to compel witnesses to testify or to mandate discovery, although they could apply for access to government-held evidence relevant to their case.
Under the law lawyers are assigned to convicted prisoners on death row who cannot afford one during the review of their sentences.
In December 2020 the Shenzhen Yantian District People’s Court sentenced 10 Hong Kong activists to prison terms between seven months and three years for illegal border crossing. After the activists were captured by PRC authorities in August 2020, they were held incommunicado. Lawyers hired by their families were barred from meeting with the activists; the court only allowed state-appointed lawyers to be present during the closed-door trial.
In July, three members of the antidiscrimination NGO Changsha Funeng – Cheng Yuan, Liu Yongze, and Wu Gejianxiong, also known as the “Changsha Three” – were sentenced in a secret trial to two to five years in prison. Despite a legal requirement to do so, the sentences were not made public, and the families were informed through informal channels. Changsha Funeng had assisted in litigating cases to end discrimination against persons with disabilities and carriers of HIV and hepatitis B. Cheng Yuan had also worked on antitorture programs, litigation to end the country’s one-child policy, and reform for household registration laws.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
Government officials continued to deny holding any political prisoners, asserting persons were detained not for their political or religious views but because they had violated the law. Authorities, however, continued to imprison citizens for reasons related to politics and religion. Human rights organizations estimated tens of thousands of political prisoners remained incarcerated, most in prisons and some in administrative detention. The government did not grant international humanitarian organizations access to political prisoners. Government security forces continued to harass and intimidate former political prisoners and their family members.
In January media reported that family members of detained lawyer Chang Weiping experienced harassment. After the family protested in front of the Gaoxin branch of the Baoji Municipal Public Security Bureau, Chang’s parents were summoned for multiple rounds of interrogation. They found a closed-circuit television camera installed outside their home and had their mobile phones confiscated. Chang’s wife, Chen Zijuan, was visited by authorities multiple times, during which authorities warned her not to conduct public advocacy for her husband and pressured her to delete her social media posts regarding her husband.
On August 25, the South China Morning Post reported on the broad use of the crime “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” against journalists, activists, lawyers, and ordinary citizens to suppress free speech. In August, two activists, Chen Mei and Cai Wei, were convicted of the crime after archiving censored internet materials related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Authorities granted political prisoners early release at lower rates than other prisoners. Thousands of persons were serving sentences for political and religious offenses, including for “endangering state security” and carrying out “cult activities.” The government neither reviewed the cases of those charged before 1997 with counterrevolution and hooliganism nor released persons imprisoned for nonviolent offenses under repealed provisions.
Many political prisoners remained either in prison or under other forms of detention after release at year’s end, including writer Yang Maodong (pen name: Guo Feixiong); Uyghur scholars Ilham Tohti, Rahile Dawut, and Hushtar Isa, brother of Uyghur World Congress president Dolkun Isa; Tibetan Dorje Tashi; activists Wang Bingzhang, Chen Jianfang, and Huang Qi; Taiwan prodemocracy activist Lee Ming-Che; pastors Zhang Shaojie and Wang Yi; Falun Gong practitioner Bian Lichao; Catholic Auxiliary Bishop of Shanghai Thaddeus Ma Daqin; rights lawyers Xia Lin, Gao Zhisheng, Xu Zhiyong, Li Yuhan, and Yu Wensheng; blogger Wu Gan; citizen journalist Zhang Zhan; Shanghai labor activist Jiang Cunde; and others.
Criminal punishments included “deprivation of political rights” for a fixed period after release from prison, during which an individual could be denied rights of free speech, association, and publication. Former prisoners reported their ability to find employment, travel, obtain residence permits and passports, rent residences, and access social services was severely restricted.
Authorities frequently subjected former political prisoners and their families to surveillance, telephone wiretaps, searches, and other forms of harassment or threats. For example, security personnel followed the family members of detained or imprisoned rights activists to meetings with foreign reporters and diplomats and urged the family members to remain silent regarding the cases of their relatives. Authorities barred certain members of the rights community from meeting with visiting dignitaries.
Politically Motivated Reprisal against Individuals Located Outside the Country
Threats, Harassment, Surveillance, and Coercion: Reports continued throughout the year regarding PRC pressure on Xinjiang-based relatives of persons located outside China who spoke publicly about the detentions and abusive policies underway inside Xinjiang. In June 2020 Kazakhstan media reported that Kazakh authorities temporarily detained Aqiqat Qaliolla and Zhenis Zarqyn for their protests in front of the PRC embassy regarding lost family members in Xinjiang “re-education” camps. In February, RFA reported based on official sources that Bakihaji Helil was sentenced in 2017 to nine years in prison after returning early from his religion studies at al-Azhar University in Egypt following Xinjiang authorities’ harassment of his family.
PRC media and authorities continued to harass and defame women who spoke about rape and sexual abuse in Xinjiang internment camps. Qelbinur Sedik, a Xinjiang camp teacher who fled China and now lives abroad, was repeatedly targeted by PRC media and received direct video messages from local Xinjiang police threatening reprisal against her family members still in Xinjiang. The BBC reported that Xinjiang police used social media to threaten Uyghurs living in Europe.
PRC state media also released videos of Xinjiang-based ethnic and religious minorities to discredit their overseas relatives’ accounts to foreign media. The persons in the videos urged their foreign-based family members to stop “spreading rumors” about Xinjiang. The overseas relatives said they had lost communication with their Xinjiang relatives until the videos were released.
In February, Hong Kong Free Press reported the PRC used “proof-of-life” videos to dispute or undermine claims of several foreign citizens about the disappearance and treatment of their relatives in China. For example the PRC published a video of Memet Tohti Atawulla’s brother who had disappeared during the PRC’s crackdown in Xinjiang. The PRC filmed the family of Sayragul Sauytbay, who since leaving China in 2018 has publicly criticized the PRC’s treatment of Kazakh persons and other Muslims in China, accusing Sayragul of “theft, deception, child abuse, and sexual immorality.” Similarly, Hong Kong Free Press reported “Kuzzat Altay’s father disowns him on camera” and “Zumrat Dawut’s brother suggests that her father’s death was due to her political activism.”
In March, Reuters reported PRC officials used press conferences to attack women abroad who provided eyewitness accounts of their experiences in Xinjiang internment camps. The report quoted a Xinjiang official publicly claiming, “Everyone knows about her inferior character. She’s lazy and likes comfort, her private life is chaotic, her neighbors say that she committed adultery while in China.” In May, Reuters reported PRC officials routinely harassed young Uyghur activists living abroad. Uyghurs faced threats from PRC hackers, intimidating phone calls, and bullying on social media.
Misuse of International Law-enforcement Tools: There were credible reports the PRC attempted to misuse international law enforcement tools for politically motivated purposes as a reprisal against specific individuals located outside the country. On July 20, according to the Associated Press, Moroccan authorities arrested Uyghur activist Yidiresi Aishan in Casablanca based on an Interpol red notice (a request from a government for a person’s arrest). The South China Morning Post reported on August 2 that Interpol had rescinded the red notice for Aishan after advocacy groups raised concerns that the red notice system was being used to repatriate Uyghur dissidents back to China. Aishan had previously lived in Turkey where he was an active member of the Uyghur diaspora and an outspoken critic of the PRC. Aishan was still detained in Morocco at year’s end.
The NSC-CCDI led the PRC’s transnational fugitive recovery efforts, Operations Fox Hunt and Sky Net. Although these efforts ostensibly targeted economic crimes, media reported they were sometimes politically motivated and targeted dissidents who lived overseas. On February 24, state-sponsored CGTN reported that through “Sky Net 2021,” a total of 1,421 fugitives, including 28 red notice fugitives, were brought back to China in 2020.
Efforts to Control Mobility: The government pressured foreign countries to repatriate or deny visas to Uyghurs who had left China. COVID-19 measures, such as checkpoints, health-app restrictions, and COVID-19-related lockdowns restricted individuals’ freedom of movement.
In November lawyer Xie Yang attempted to visit imprisoned citizen journalist Zhang Zhan’s family but was warned by two police officers to not go. Shortly after, his COVID-19 health verification mobile phone app went from green to red, which effectively restricted his movement.
Bilateral Pressure: There were credible reports that for politically motivated purposes the PRC attempted to exert bilateral pressure on other countries aimed at having those countries take adverse action against specific individuals. In Kazakhstan, media reported that Kazakh authorities temporarily detained at least 10 protesters at the PRC embassy who were demanding the release of family members being held in Xinjiang “re-education” camps. In February a court in Kazakhstan sentenced Baibolat Kunbolatuly to 10 days in jail for staging protests outside the Chinese consulate to demand answers about his brother’s detention in Xinjiang. According to RFA on October 1 (the PRC’s national day), Kazakh police detained eight ethnic Kazakh protesters in Nur-Sultan who were demanding the release of relatives being held in Xinjiang.
On June 30, the Chinese Embassy in France sent a letter to the editorial office of French youth newspaper Mon Quotidien condemning its article regarding forced labor in Xinjiang. According to Radio Free Asia, the Chinese Embassy also circulated a petition calling for the withdrawal of the article.