A visit to a Chinese court

Seeing a different view of law and order gives one a benchmark to analyze our system.

by Diana Fu

Recently, I got a rare glimpse into a Chinese court. Holding a foreign passport meant that I had to jump through a series of administrative hoops to witness a court proceeding. It was worth it.

To the average American, China’s legal system is either a complete blind spot or a not-so-pleasant picture riddled with corruption and plagued by an extreme number of death sentences.

A single visit to a Beijing district court does not allow me to judge the veracity of these perceptions. But, hopefully, sharing my experience will spark more curiosity regarding legal systems outside of the common law tradition we have in the United States.

The court I visited was a very modern-looking structure with long white columns in five different languages upon entrance. The national emblem hung on the building’s facade. I witnessed a minor theft case. The defendant had stolen an electric bicycle. A tall police officer marched briskly in and sat the defendant down in the middle of the courtroom facing the judge.

The defendant’s physical placement is significant. In common law court, the defendant is placed toward the side of the courtroom, with the lawyers in the middle facing the judge. In China, the defendant is placed in the center of the courtroom facing the judge. This signifies a power relation between the state (the judge) and the violator of state laws (the defendant). In U.S. courts, the power relation is between the judge and lawyers.

As the trial proceeded, I noticed the judge, an imposing figure in his robe and red badge, was far more active than the lawyers. On several occasions, he directly questioned the defendant, who looked terrified and was unable to speak. He did not consult his attorney.

The attitude of the judge toward the defendant was one of serious rebuke. The defendant was treated as if he were already guilty. In China, most judges already have an idea of the decision before going to court because the prosecutor prepares all the witness testimonies, evidence and shows it to the judge before the trial. Thus, China’s conviction rate is extremely high.

Furthermore, the Chinese judge does not interpret the law; he merely enacts it. He is an arm of the government. So it was not a surprise that the defendant was found guilty and sentenced to six months in prison. What was surprising was that the defendant had been incarcerated from the moment of his capture until his trial (almost six months).

Following the trial, I met up with a young, vibrant female judge. A pair of sneakers peeped out from underneath her robe. She was only in her mid-30s and had been a judge for 14 years. She told me with a chuckle that she was ready to retire. From her, I learned there is a quota on the number of female judges – they must be in a ratio of 1-3 to male judges. To me, this was obvious gender discrimination. But she insisted that she was treated fairly, aside from the fact that just like in many countries, it is harder for female judges to be promoted.

Chinese judges’ biggest challenge is not daily routines but dealing with “guanxi,” the Chinese term for handling relationships. In her case, if her superiors hint that they want a certain outcome from a ruling, she must balance ethics with losing her job.

Another cause of corruption is the relatively low salaries – only 3,000 Chinese Yuan (roughly the equivalent to $350) a month for regular district judges. That is not enough to live comfortably in Beijing. Thus, the temptation to accept “gifts” is heightened.

Despite all of these problems, I am fairly optimistic that the Chinese legal system is not as dark as Western media portray it. The media pounce on extreme cases of abuse and corruption. This exposure is good and bad. While it draws attention to very real problems, it can be damaging when the average American takes that one story and projects it to the entire system or country.

As China’s market economy develops further and the number of legal scholar exchanges increase, I believe that the next decade holds a brighter moon.

Diana Fu is a University student studying in China. She welcomes comments at [email protected]