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China (Includes Hong Kong, Macau, and Tibet)

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

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 in an attempt 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 July the United Kingdom broadcasting regulator found in its formal investigation that China Global Television Network, the international news channel of China Central Television, broadcast in 2013 and 2014 a confession forced from a British private investigator imprisoned in China. China Global Television Network faced potential statutory sanctions in the United Kingdom. “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).

“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).

Trial Procedures

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 require trials to be open to the public, with the exception of cases involving state secrets, privacy issues, minors, or on the application of 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 state 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, with the exception of 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. 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 some 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 August the Hunan provincial justice department revoked the license for human rights lawyer Xie Yang for his 2017 conviction for “inciting subversion of state power.” Xie said the revocation did not follow proper administrative processes and the complaint against was without proper merits. Xie was a “709” detainee and restarted his law practice soon after his release from prison in 2017.

Other government tactics to intimidate or otherwise pressure human rights lawyers included unlawful detention, vague “investigations” of legal offices, disbarment, harassment and physical intimidation, and denial of access to evidence and to clients.

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 state 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 and limited time to review evidence, and defendants and lawyers were not allowed to communicate with one another 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.

In May labor activists Wu Guijun, Zhang Zhiru, He Yuancheng, Jian Hui, and Song Jiahui were released after being sentenced to suspended jail terms of two to four years in a closed-door trial. They were detained in January 2019 on the charge of “disrupting social order;” according to media Zhang and Wu were prevented from hiring lawyers.

In September, three public interest lawyers–Cheng Yuan, Liu Yongze, and Wu Gejianxiong, also known as the “Changsha Three”–were tried without notice to family or their lawyers on suspicion of “subversion of state power.” The lawyers worked for Changsha Funeng, an organization that litigated 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. The details of the trial and its outcome remained unknown as year’s end.

Hong Kong

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

Although the law generally provides for an independent judiciary, there were indications that this independence was being challenged. As it did for the police force, the Department of Justice set up a separate office that deals with NSL prosecutions. There were media reports that this office also managed certain prosecutions against opposition activists not charged under the NSL. Activists voiced concern that those charged under the NSL may be denied a fair and public trial, as the NSL allows extradition to the mainland for trial. Chinese Communist Party mouthpieces in Hong Kong put pressure on the judiciary to accept more “guidance” from the government and called for extradition to the mainland in at least one high-profile case; they also criticized sentences deemed too lenient. Arrests made by police and the prosecutions pursued by the Justice Department appeared to be increasingly politically motivated in nature.

Trial Procedures

The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial, and an independent judiciary largely enforced this right. Defendants have the right to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges against them and the right to a trial without undue delay.

Defendants are presumed innocent, except in official corruption cases: Under the law a sitting or former government official who maintains a standard of living above that commensurate with an official income or who controls monies or property disproportionate to an official income is considered guilty of an offense unless the official can satisfactorily explain the discrepancy. The courts upheld this ordinance. Trials are by jury except at the magistrate and district court level. An attorney is provided at public expense if defendants cannot afford counsel. Defendants have adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense. The government conducted court proceedings in either Cantonese or English, the SAR’s two official languages. The government provided interpretation service to those not conversant in Cantonese or English during all criminal court proceedings. Defendants could confront and question witnesses testifying against them and present witnesses to testify on their own behalf. Defendants have the right not to be compelled to testify or confess guilt, the right to be present at their trial, and the right of appeal.

The SAR’s courts are charged with interpreting those provisions of the Basic Law that address matters within the limits of the SAR’s autonomy. SAR courts also interpret provisions of the Basic Law that relate to central government responsibilities or the relationship between the central authorities and the SAR. The Court of Final Appeal may seek an interpretation of relevant provisions from the PRC central government’s Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC). SAR courts must by law follow the standing committee’s interpretations in cases involving central government jurisdiction, although judgments previously rendered are not affected. The standing committee has issued five interpretations of the Basic Law since 1997. The most recent, issued in 2016, requires lawmakers “to accurately, completely, and solemnly” swear an oath to uphold the Basic Law and recognize the Hong Kong SAR as a part of China before taking office. This ruling was the basis, in 2017, for disqualifying six opposition figures from taking their Legislative Council seats.

Under the NSL the chief executive provides a list of judges eligible to hear NSL cases. The NPC Standing Committee determines how the NSL is interpreted, not a SAR-based judiciary or elected body. The standing committee has the power in certain cases to extradite the accused to the mainland and hold trials behind closed doors. As of November, no cases have come to trial to validate or negate apprehensions about the NSL trial mechanisms.

Macau

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The law provides for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respected judicial independence and impartiality.

Trial Procedures

The law provides for the right to a fair public trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right. A case may be presided over by one judge or a group of judges, depending on the type of crime and the maximum penalty involved.

Under the law defendants enjoy a presumption of innocence and have a right to appeal. The law provides that trials be public except when the court rules otherwise to “safeguard the dignity of persons, public morality, or to provide for the normal functioning of the court.” Defendants have the right to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges (with free interpretation), be present at their trials, confront witnesses, have adequate time to prepare a defense, not be compelled to testify or confess guilt, and consult with an attorney in a timely manner. The government provides public attorneys for those financially incapable of engaging lawyers or paying expenses of proceedings.

The SAR’s unique civil-code judicial system derives from the Portuguese legal system. The courts may rule on matters that are the responsibility of the government of the People’s Republic of China or concern the relationship between central authorities and the SAR, but before making their final judgment, which is not subject to appeal, the courts must seek an interpretation of the relevant provisions from the National People’s Congress Standing Committee. The Basic Law requires that courts follow the standing committee’s interpretations when cases intersect with central government jurisdiction, although judgments previously rendered are not affected, and when the standing committee makes an interpretation of the provisions concerned, the courts, in applying those provisions, “shall follow the interpretation of the Standing Committee.” As the final interpreter of the Basic Law, the standing committee also has the power to initiate interpretations of the Basic Law.

Macau

Tibet

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The judiciary was not independent of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) or government in law or practice. In March for example, officials in Mangkhang County, TAR, announced that the local prosecutor’s office would hire five court clerks. Among the job requirements were loyalty to the CCP leadership and a critical attitude toward the 14th Dalai Lama. The November establishment of “Xi Jinping Thought on the Rule of Law” sought to strengthen this party control over the legal system.

Soon after an August meeting of senior CCP officials about Tibet during which President Xi Jinping stated the people must continue the fight against “splittism,” the Dui Hua Foundation reported that the Kandze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture Intermediate People’s Court in Sichuan Province had convicted nine Tibetans of “inciting splittism” during the year. Little public information was available about their trials.

Trial Procedures

Criminal suspects in the PRC have the right to hire a lawyer or other defense representation, but many Tibetan defendants, particularly those facing politically motivated charges, did not have access to legal representation while in pretrial detention. In rare cases, defendants were denied access to legal representation entirely, but in many cases lawyers are unwilling to take clients due to political risks or because Tibetan families often do not have the resources to cover legal fees. For example, Tibetan language activist Tashi Wangchuk, arrested in 2016 and convicted in 2018, has been denied access to his lawyer since his conviction. Access was limited prior to his trial, and the government rejected petitions and motions appealing the verdict filed by his lawyer and other supporters, although PRC law allows for such appeals.

While some Tibetan lawyers are licensed in Tibetan areas, observers reported they were often unwilling to defend individuals in front of ethnic Han judges and prosecutors due to fear of reprisals or disbarment. In cases that authorities claimed involved “endangering state security” or “separatism,” trials often were cursory and closed. Local sources noted trials were predominantly conducted in Mandarin, with government interpreters provided for defendants who did not speak Mandarin. Court decisions, proclamations, and other judicial documents, however, generally were not published in Tibetan.

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The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future