In recent years Chinese courts, in particular those in Henan Province, have begun to place a vast quantity of court options online. This talk examines one-year of publicly available criminal judgments from one basic-level rural county court and one intermediate court in Henan in order to better understand trends in routine criminal adjudication in China. The result is an account of ordinary criminal justice that is both familiar and striking: a system that treats serious crimes, in particular those affecting state interests, harshly while at the same time acting leniently in routine cases. Most significantly, examination of more than five hundred court decisions shows the vital role that settlement plays in criminal cases in China today. Defendants who agree to compensate their victims receive strikingly lighter sentences than those who do not. Likewise, settlement plays a role in resolving even serious crimes, at times appearing to make the difference between life and death for criminal defendants. These findings provide insight into a range of debates concerning the roles being played by the Chinese criminal justice system and the functions of courts in that system. Examination of cases from Henan also provides a base for discussing the future of empirical research on Chinese court judgments, demonstrating that there is much to learn from the vast volume of cases that have in recent years become publicly available.
Benjamin L. Liebman is the Robert L. Lieff Professor of Law and the Director of the Center for Chinese Legal Studies at Columbia Law School. His recent publications include “Malpractice Mobs: Medical Dispute Resolution in China,” Columbia Law Review (2013); “A Return to Populist Legality? Historical Legacies and Legal Reform,” in Mao’s Invisible Hand (edited by Sebastian Heilmann and Elizabeth Perry, 2011); and “Toward Competitive Supervision? The Media and the Courts,” China Quarterly (2011).