Leiden Law Blog

China from a penal and criminological perspective

China from a penal and criminological perspective

On October 25th, a delegation of Leiden Law School, leaves in the wake of the Dean, Joanne van der Leun, to China, Shanghai. To prevent us from losing each other and to circumvent Chinese censorship, Simone van der Hof, Professor of Law and Digital Technology at this university, recommends that we made use of Signal, a chat programme that is used in particular by those who want to stay under the radar of the secret services ( I let myself tell as being quite computer illiterate ). The purpose of the journey is to explore exchange opportunities in the field of education and research. I am contributing in my role as coordinator of the Criminal Justice Master programme and the Criminal Justice Research programme. Before setting off, I purchased, the Routhledge Handbook of Chinese Criminology (Liqun Cao, Ivan Y.Sun and Bill Habenton, eds. 2014), a fascinating collection of articles, written mainly by Chinese criminal lawyers and criminologists who now work at a university outside China or foreign academics who have been working in China for a while.  I studied it thoroughly, because my knowledge of China is limited to what a keen news enthusiast learns from the media and the beautiful documentary Langs de oevers van de Yangtze (Along the banks of the Yangtze river) that was broadcasted by the Dutch television last year, but is still available on the internet.

Once we have landed at Shanghai Airport, it takes a while before we have found an English ATM and the cheapest taxi. Anette van Sandwijk, Head of the International Office is already waiting for us. We have exact 15 minutes to change, drink a cup of coffee and eat a sandwich, before we have to leave for East China University of Political Science and Law. The dean and some professors are waiting for us. Unfortunately, the Professor of Criminal Justice speaks no English, so after our conversation I still don’t know what kind of criminal justice topics this university is involved in. This is a pity, because shortly afterwards I have to give a talk to 70 young people, presumably all students, of whom I have no idea if they come to my lecture for pleasure or because they were obliged to do so and what their background is. I assume that everything I disclose about our Criminal Justice Programme is very sensitive in China, but at this point I don’t have the courage yet to find out about this by interacting with the audience, a frustrating experience, because I really did intend to learn as much as possible this week about the Chinese criminal justice system. My colleagues, however, don’t share this experience and observe that Chinese students express their involvement in different ways. Indeed, a few students approach me after the lecture to ask questions, in particular about the research on prisons.

The next day we visit Shanghai Jao Tong University, in the afternoon Shanghai International Studies (SIS). Preceding the substantial part, we start with a ritual exchange of business cards, courtesies and presents. Our Dean does a fantastic job and always comes up with a new subtle version of a compliment. In particular at SIS, it is clear that Anette already has done lot of preparatory work, since we are received with great enthusiasm. I notice that not all Chinese colleagues hand their business card to us bowing and with two hands, despite the fact that we have received strict instructions for this which we also strictly adhere to.

During the many abundant and tasty lunches and dinners in private rooms without windows, we slowly learn more about the Chinese living circumstances. The constant pull from the countryside to the city, has pushed up prices twentyfold in the past ten years according to one of my contacts. And despite the endless rows of skyscrapers you pass by when you leave the city centre, an acute lack of living space exists in this city which has 24 million inhabitants. Many of the people we met therefore live a substantial distance from the university in small and not always comfortable apartments. Using a car is not so easy, because you can only get a license plate number, if you either succeed in a lottery for a new number, or buy an old one with equivalent of 12000 euros. Some of our colleagues had been excluded for several years. Also a car doesn’t guarantee that you will be at work in time as we discover twice when we order a taxi at a kind of Über-company. Although the system tells us that the taxi will be there in a few minutes, in reality it takes 30 to 60 minutes, because of the endless traffic jams. Without a car, you have no choice but to use the extensive underground system, which though very fast in Shanghai, is also extremely busy. From this perspective, it is not so strange that former students that we speak to at a dinner for alumni of three Dutch Universities, look back on their time in Leiden as a kind of ‘paradise’ that they still long for. Partly thanks to their time abroad, most of them now have successful jobs at companies or law firms where they often work from early morning till late at night. If I ask them if they still see each other on a regular basis they laugh (which can have different meanings in China I noticed) and tell me that they do arrange to meet sometimes, but also often cancel, because they are too tired to meet up in the weekend. According to a Dutch friend of the organizer of the event, their situation, however, is not much different from other starters in the same areas in for example London or even Amsterdam.

And yes, step by step, I learn more about the Criminal Justice system from the people I met. I observe a strong awareness of the limitations of their own system, about which people talk with relative openness. They do not see much scope for action for themselves, however, which has as a consequence that practicing a function in the Criminal Justice system is often not seen as an attractive option. Criminal justice in China is as much about politics as it is about law. Almost 100% of offenders appearing in court are convicted (McConville and Xin Fu 2014, in: Liqun Cao, Ivan Yvan Y.Sun and Bill Habenton( eds),p. 98), so this makes a job as a prosecutor or defence lawyer not very attractive from a legal point of view. Even if you have the courage as a critical defence lawyer to try to get to the bottom of a case, this will generally have to be done at your own expense since clients will often not be able to pay you, and China has no extensive system of legal aid. When I ask my table companions what are the most interesting places in Shanghai for the criminologists among us, a silence descends upon the group.

At the end of our journey, we visit Shandong Law School in Qingdao, a ‘small city’ (between 5 and 6 million inhabitants) half way from Shanghai to Beijing. The university was recently relocated  from Jinan to Qingdao, including students and academic staff, a distance of almost 400 km. These are moving operations compared to which the intended building work on the KOG-building of the law faculty of Leiden (KOG) pales. The Dean is very enthusiastic and runs with us through the enormous buildings. For the lectures we are split into pairs.  Colleague Van Meeteren and I are introduced to a group of about twenty master students to whom we are expected to speak for one hour and 20 minutes instead of the 30 minutes we had counted on. But it gives us time to really try to start a conversation with them. We succeed to a certain extent. My plea for livable prison conditions is not accepted uncontested, in so far the Chinese students do not differ from other audiences I speak to. The arguments are different however. The students point for example to the position of family members of the convicted persons who have to pay compensation for the wrongdoings of their relatives, sometimes for years. Seen from this perspective, the thought of detaining prisoners in comfortable prison conditions is considered very odd. Also interesting is the discussion that follows on Masja van Meeterens talk on the position of immigrants in Europe.  Their situation is very comparable to those of Chinese people who move from the countryside to the city. The students mention examples of “huko (household registration system)” that prevents them from bringing their family with them. 

During our final dinner, I am fortunate to sit next to the Professor of Criminal Justice who speaks very good English and even lived in the United States for two years with his family. Wrongful convictions, is one of the topics he is interested in, a hot issue in China since a few of these convictions became known and were broadly covered in the media, because the victim turned out to be still alive or the true offender reported himself. We have a very interesting discussion on the different evidentiary systems of our Criminal Justice systems and the risks of wrongful convictions in both systems.

Something of the communistic ideology I retrieve when setting off to pay a visit to the toilet, shortly before my talk at Shandong Law School.  Before I enter, my hostess informs me in a neutral tone that I won’t find any toilet paper inside, but that I probably have something with me myself. A student passing by recognizes my confusion and hands me a packet with two paper tissues left. In the spirit of ancient China, I share equally with our Dean. 

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