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Comparative Criminal Law and Enforcement: China - Powers And Process Of The Criminal Justice Institutions

court police procuracy trial

The police and police powers. The police is the most powerful institution in China's criminal process for three reasons. First, the police hold a special place in Chinese politics. Until the late 1970s, the Minister of Public Security maintained close, even personal, ties with top CCP and state officials, and played the role of a leader in China's legal institutions. While the role of the MPS in national politics was substantially diminished during the reform era largely due to the rising power of the SPP and the SPC, police at the regional levels continue to dominate the criminal justice system.

The chief of police, as part of the local political elite, generally holds three key positions: member in the Standing Committee of the local Party Committee; chairman of the local PLC; and deputy mayor/governor in the regional government. He is the law of the place. China has been searching for a proper balance between the powers of the police, procuracy, and the court to ensure checks and balances. A development since the mid-1990s is the requirement that the chairman of the PLC at the local and national levels hold no position in legal institutions. Notwithstanding this change, the CCP will continue to lead the local legal system through the police, given its political influence.

Second, the criminal process is structured in such a way that the police play a dominant role. There are few procedural requirements within the investigative process, and there are few measures to protect a suspect's rights. The law encourages the police to ascertain the true facts of an offense with little regard to procedural rectitude. Once the police have found the truth, as they perceived it, all the subsequent processes become a mere verification of that determination. The files prepared by the police become central to the entire prosecuting process, and the only issue at stake is whether the files can withstand the scrutiny of prosecutors, judges, and lawyers.

Finally, the police can bypass the criminal procedures and avoid accountability by utilizing administrative penalties. Punishment for public order offenses and RTL can be imposed by the police summarily and with little external supervision. The police powers in this regard are extremely broad, and also severe, leading to one to three years' incarceration. Administrative penalties offer the police sufficient scope to dispose of most minor offenses.

The procuracy. The procuracy is a unique institution in Chinese law. It is equal to the court in its constitutional status. The procuracy performs multiple functions as an investigative, prosecutorial, supervisory, and judicial body.

It investigates crimes, mostly corruption, committed by state functionaries in executing their duty. The procuracy has been criticized for its lack of action against government corruption and blamed for its rampage. But given the relationship between the CCP and China's legal system, and the role of the CDIs in investigating crimes by CCP members, the procuracy's authority to investigate crimes committed by the CCP officials is limited.

Second, the procuracy institutes public prosecution against all crimes in court. After the investigators conclude their investigations, they transfer the case to the procuracy for public prosecution. Where the procuracy considers the facts to be clear, the evidence reliable and complete, and the offense serious enough to warrant criminal sanction, it shall initiate a public prosecution in a court with competent jurisdiction, unless the case is "obviously minor" or where other statutory conditions exist. Where a case is not prosecuted, the police, the victim, and the suspect can apply to the procuracy to review the decision. Alternatively, the victim may institute a prosecution in court directly (CPL, Arts. 144–146).

Third, the procuracy supervises the application and enforcement of law by other legal institutions. In relation to the police, the procuracy has the power to demand that the police initiate a criminal investigation over a complaint; to review and approve arrests to be made by the police; and, after the police completes its investigation, to request the police to conduct supplementary investigations if the evidence is insufficient, and to decide not to prosecute if the police are unable to supply additional evidence. In relation to the court, the procuracy supervises the legality of judicial work including reviewing the legality of criminal and civil trials. In the case of criminal trials, the supervisory role necessarily creates a conflict in a criminal trial between procurators as prosecutors before the court and procurators as supervisors above the court.

Finally, the procuracy performs a limited judicial function. Before the 1996 CPL reform, the procuracy had the power to find a suspect guilty of an offense without initiating a public prosecution. Under the law, the procuracy was able to grant an exemption from prosecution where the procuracy deemed it unnecessary to impose a criminal punishment, while simultaneously finding the person guilty of a criminal offense. The exemption system was finally abolished in 1996. The only existing judicial function of the procuracy is that the SPP has the authority to interpret laws in its procuratorial work. As it happens, most of the judicial interpretations of criminal law are given by the SPC and the SPP, either severally or jointly.

The court. Chinese courts are composed of several chambers according to the subject areas of the law. Criminal law chamber may be further divided according to the nature and seriousness of the offenses. Heading each chamber is a chief judge, who is responsible for allocating cases to judges in the chamber and supervising their work.

Once the prosecution initiates proceedings against a suspect, and transfers the case to a particular chamber, the chamber forms a collegial panel, composed solely of judges or of judges and lay judges (referred to as people's assessors) at the discretion of the court. The chief judge of the chambers is responsible to the president of the court and the adjudicative committee of the court. The adjudicative committee is the power center of a court. It is chaired by the president of the court, and composed of vice-presidents of the court, chief judge of the chambers and heads of political and services departments of the courts.

Criminal trials in China have been referred to as inquisitorial, and since the 1996 CPL reform, the criminal trial has been in a gradual transformation from an inquisitorial model to an adversarial model. Before the CPL reform, the prosecution was required to submit all the evidence to the court once it finished its investigation, and the trial judges were required to investigate the case thoroughly, including interviewing the accused and examining evidence, before the case was tried. Where the court found prosecution evidence to be insufficient, it was bound to remand the files to the procuracy for supplementary investigations. A case would not be tried unless the trial judge was certain about the facts and the law. Naturally, the trial was merely an occasion to announce a decision made before the trial started, and a "not guilty" verdict was a near impossibility.

The 1996 CPL reform abolished the use of pretrial judicial investigation. Under the new procedures, the prosecution provides a Bill of Prosecution and a list of evidence to be produced in court; the court will decide to try the case if there is prima facie evidence of criminal wrongdoing. Without pretrial judicial investigation, the prosecution now bears the burden of proof. The defense is able to play a more meaningful role. It can cross-examine the prosecution evidence and produce its own evidence to challenge the allegation. The defense can make strong arguments on behalf of the accused without necessarily challenging the authority of the court. Judges are now expected to be more neutral and passive arbitrators, evaluating evidence and arguments presented before the court. "Not-guilty" verdicts have become a real possibility in Chinese courts.

The implementation of reform has been difficult and confusing, however. For the most part, the former inquisitorial trial style remains unchanged. Most witnesses still do not testify in court, and the trial continues to be based on affidavits. Trial judges remain active during the trials and interrogate defendants as frequently as in the past. Judges found themselves unable to decide without first reading the files prepared by the prosecution; the trial itself is too brief to provide solid factual and legal bases for a proper decision. The court now reads the files after the trial. The consequence of the reform is that the decision-making process is postponed from before the trial to after the trial. The court hearing is still a formality.

Another issue concerns the actual decisionmaker in a trial. Chinese law emphasizes the independence of the court as an institution, not that of the judge as an individual. A judge is part of the judicial hierarchy and is bound to follow orders from the chief judge, the president, and the adjudicative committee. There are doubts as to who in a court is entitled to decide a trial. In ordinary cases, it is the collegial panel that "shall render a judgment" after the hearings and deliberations. However, in "difficult, complex or major cases" in which the collegial panel finds it difficult to make a decision, the collegial panel should refer the case to the president of the court. The president will then decide whether to submit the case to the judicial committee for discussion and an eventual decision (CPL, Art. 149). The collegial panel is bound to execute the decision of the judicial committee. Given the vagueness of the phrase "difficult, complex or major case" and given the hierarchical nature within a people's court, the fact remains that those who hear a case might not decide its outcome.

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over 4 years ago

I found the article useful and wonder to what extent and in what ways Xi Jingpi's campaign against corruption will affect the procuracy at the local level. Thanks. Vera Simone