03 July 2013

China's National Verdict Database and the Death Penalty

As someone who researches the Chinese criminal justice system and has been involved in the collection of information on individual cases, I have long awaited the day when all of China’s court decisions might become publicly available online. As this article points out, the push for online publication of court verdicts has been ongoing in China for nearly a decade. One of the main motivations is the idea that publication will raise the quality of court decisions because they will be subject to wider scrutiny by the public. Other motivations include a simple desire to increase the degree of transparency in the judicial system and make the public more aware of courts’ work and judicial procedures.

China’s courts have made much progress over the years, but we’re nowhere near universal publication—even in well-off provinces and municipalities where information technology infrastructure should be no problem. Now, however, there seems to be a renewed interest in creating a centralized database of court decisions to be managed under the auspices of the Supreme People’s Court (SPC). The court has now put a new web-based platform on line for accessing this database, and the Xinhua News Agency has circulated some interesting information about the database and its purpose.

This new platform is clearly still in its early stages. As of today, only a few dozen SPC judgments are available, though it appears that there are plans to include decisions from courts at the provincial level at least in future. It is notable, however, that the three criminal cases selected for publication on the website are death penalty review decisions, because currently the death-penalty-review stage is perhaps the least transparent of any stage in the criminal process.

According to an official from the SPC, the current thinking is that publishing selected death penalty review decisions can serve to “guide” the public’s understanding of China’s policies with respect to capital punishment and help lower courts develop more consistent standards for applying the death penalty. In the future, the official promised, death penalty decisions will also be published in certain “hot button” capital cases that have attracted public attention.

So, it seems that, as far as death penalty cases are concerned, the SPC’s intent is something significantly less than full transparency. This policy of selective publication of death penalty review decisions departs substantially from what the SPC official says about the need to publish all court decisions, regardless of quality or type. But the provisional measures governing the SPC’s publication of decisions clearly states that all of its decisions will be published online once they take legal effect, “except where the law makes special provisions.”

I assume that these “special provisions” are particularly directed at protecting so-called “state secrets.” In this light, the choice to publish only selected death penalty decisions makes certain sense, given that publishing all death penalty review decisions would essentially be equivalent to revealing the number of executions carried out in China each year. This number, currently estimated to be well into the thousands, has long been treated as a closely held state secret, and there is no indication that this policy will change anytime soon.

The publication of three death penalty review decisions—one from each of the past three years—is a far cry from full transparency. (Just for reference, Chinese press accounts confirm the execution of over 40 individuals last month alone, each of which was carried out after conclusion of the review process by the SPC.) It will be interesting to watch how open the SPC will become when it comes to revealing more about its work related to the death penalty. This database could turn out to be an invaluable resource for researchers and those concerned about how capital punishment is carried out in China. That fact, however, might be a good reason not to expect too much, too soon, from this particular promise of transparency.

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