Posts tagged: Chongqing

Glenn Tiffert On China’s Recent Jurisdictional Issues

By , September 9, 2012

Jurisdiction is central in any legal system; it is jurisdiction that gives a court its power to administer justice.  Without proper jurisdiction, a court’s opinion is defective.  Thus, given its importance, all legal systems design specific rules governing when a court has jurisdiction over a case.

But recently in China, how courts have gained jurisdiction in criminal trials has been called into question.  The trial of Gu Kailai, for a murder that took place in Chongqing, was heard in Hefei.  Wang Lijun was police chief of Chongqing, but his crimes are being heard in a Chengdu court.  Has the Chinese legal system ignored all rules concerning what gives a court jurisdiction?  Or are there other rules that apply?

Glenn D. Tiffert, a Ph.D. candidate in History at the University of California, Berkeley with a focus on the legal history of the PRC, explains below that what might look like a random selection of courts actually has a basis in law.  Tiffert also reminds us that there is more than just the Criminal Procedure Law to look at in understanding the Chinese criminal legal system. 

Mixed-Up Confusion?  The Different Ways Chinese Courts Obtain Jurisdiction

By Glenn D. Tiffert

Part 1 of a two part series exploring the jurisdictional issues in recent criminal cases

As the Chinese legal system works its way through the various cases connected to the “Bo Xilai Affair,” it is a good time to review the usually unglamorous procedural rules governing jurisdiction.  The Bo Xilai Affair has brought these jurisdictional rules to the forefront and is generating more than the usual amount of interest among China watchers; even those focused on Chinese law are finding twists worth exploring.

To keep things simple, I will explore jurisdictional issues in the Gu Kailai and Wang Lijun cases alone, although my points could apply more generally to the other defendants connected to Gu, namely her accomplice Zhang Xiaojun, and the four police officers charged with covering up her crime.  This post will look at territorial jurisdiction, in other words, where the trials were held.  A later post will examine why both cases were assigned to intermediate level People’s Courts.

Gu Kailai being led into Hefei Intermediate People's Court

To recap: Gu Kailai was convicted of the intentional homicide of Neil Heywood, a British citizen resident in China, and the crime was alleged to have taken place in Chongqing, Sichuan province, the city her powerful husband, Bo Xilai, presided over as Party Secretary.  However, Gu’s trial took place 800 miles away from the city of Chongqing, in the city of Hefei, Anhui province, a place that had no known connection to the homicide, or to the alleged crimes of the other defendants associated with her.  Observers have suggested various practical or political reasons for why the trial was not held in Chongqing, and why it may have been assigned to Hefei, but those need not concern us here.  We are interested in discovering the legal authority for the assignment of the case to Hefei.

Article 24 of the Criminal Procedure Law of the PRC establishes the general rule that: “A criminal case shall be under the jurisdiction of the People’s Court in the place where the crime was committed.  If it is more appropriate for the case to be tried by the People’s Court in the place where the defendant resides, then that court may have jurisdiction over the case.”   Additionally, the Criminal Procedure Law provides rules for cases in which more than one court could claim jurisdiction, or in which jurisdiction is unclear.  For example, Article 25 states: “When several People’s Courts at the same level have jurisdiction over a case, it shall be tried by the People’s Court that first accepted it. When necessary the case may be transferred for trial to the People’s Court in the principal place where the crime was committed.”  However, in the case of Gu Kailai, none of these basic rules provide a basis for trying her in Hefei.  As a result, we must look elsewhere.

The Chinese legal system provides several routes for transferring jurisdiction over a case from one court to another.  For example, pursuant to the Criminal Procedure Law and the Law on the Organization of the People’s Courts, a lower level court with jurisdiction over a major or complex case can request a higher level court to take over the case.  But because Gu Kailai was charged with a capital crime, we can rule this path out.  Article 20 of the Criminal Procedure Law stipulates that intermediate level courts have jurisdiction of first instance over crimes punishable by life imprisonment or the death penalty and, because this case was actually tried by an intermediate level court, a lower court could not have had jurisdiction over it first.

One jurisdictional route rises above the rest.  Article 26 of the Criminal Procedure Law provides that: “A People’s Court at a higher level may assign a People’s Court at a lower level to try a case over which jurisdiction is unclear and may also instruct a People’s Court at a lower level to transfer the case to another People’s Court for trial.”

Article 26 can be parsed in different ways, with different results attaching.  To resolve the ambiguity, we must do what we do in any legal system, move beyond the four corners of the statute to consult supporting texts and practice, both of which indicate that the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) essentially regards Article 26 as comprising two independent clauses, the second of which matters here.  Hence we get: “A People’s Court at a higher level may… instruct a People’s Court at a lower level to transfer the case to another People’s Court for trial.”

The authoritative SPC Interpretation on Certain Questions Pertaining to the Implementation of the Criminal Procedure Law of the PRC (“the SPC Interpretation”) stipulates two ways that can happen.  First, under Article 18 of the SPC Interpretation, when the President of a lower level court must recuse himself[1] and it would be “unsuitable” for that court to assert its jurisdiction over a case, that court may ask a higher level court to take over jurisdiction.  The higher level court may take jurisdiction or assign it to another court at the same (lower) level as the first court.  Article 19 of the SPC Interpretation requires the higher court to send its decision on jurisdiction – 管辖决定书 (guanxia juedingshu) – to the lower court newly awarded jurisdiction and to other relevant courts.  Second, Article 22 of the SPC Interpretation allows a higher level court on its own initiative to assign jurisdiction over a case from one lower level court to another lower level court “when necessary,” without first requiring a request from below or that the second court be of the same level as the first.

Admittedly, we know few hard facts about the procedural history of the Gu Kailai case, but one nugget stands out.  The Xinhua reporting on the trial indicates that the SPC issued a decision on jurisdiction to the Hefei Intermediate People’s Court, and the Hefei court accepted the case for trial on that basis.  We do not know precisely whether this decision was based on Article 18 or 22 of the SPC Interpretation, as either might reasonably have applied, but the SPC evidently used its inherent power under Article 26 of the Criminal Procedure Law, as expounded in the SPC Interpretation, to transfer Gu’s case to Hefei.  One may furthermore assume that the Supreme People’s Procuratorate issued complementary instructions so that procurators would actually argue the case there, too.

The Supreme People's Court

Assuming that the SPC complied with its own Interpretation of the Criminal Procedure Law, we may infer from its decision on jurisdiction that another court originally accepted the case.  We do not know which court that may have been, but an obvious candidate would have been the Chongqing Intermediate People’s Court.  Under this scenario, three possibilities present: first, the unnamed court claimed jurisdiction over the case without the approval of senior Party and judicial authorities in Beijing, which seems implausible; second, Beijing granted its approval and then changed its mind; and third, acceptance by the unnamed court served, in the interests of formal compliance with procedural requirements, purely as a trigger for transfer to Hefei.  Regardless, as the highest court in the land, once the SPC transferred jurisdiction, the decision was effectively immune from challenge or appeal.

In comparison, the Wang Lijun case is more straightforward.  At least one of Wang’s alleged crimes took place in Chengdu: his purported “defection” in the United States consulate.  Notwithstanding substantive problems matching the facts as we know them to the elements of this crime, Chengdu judicial authorities may properly claim jurisdiction over the case under Article 25 of the Criminal Procedure Law (discussed above), and barring an unlikely protest from their counterparts in Chongqing or any other locale in which Wang is alleged to have committed crimes, the trial will take place in the Chengdu Intermediate People’s Court.  Indeed, given the stakes in trying Wang, one may assume that the SPC, and the political leadership behind it, assents to Chengdu jurisdiction, either tacitly or by assignment.  When the verdict is announced, we may know which.

Historically, reassignments of lower court jurisdiction by higher level courts are not uncommon in the Chinese judicial system, where concerns about local protectionism, judicial independence and varying levels of judicial competence adversely affecting trial outcomes run high.  The 2008 criminal trial of former Shanghai Party Secretary Chen Liangyu in Tianjin is another prominent, recent example.  Cases like those of Chen Liangyu and Gu Kailai shine a spotlight on one of the Chinese judicial system’s underappreciated features.


[1] Article 28 of the Criminal Procedure Law defines the grounds for recusal, including “relations with a party to the case that could affect the impartial handling of the case.”

The Trial of Gu Kailai – Did the CCP Bite Itself in the Butt?

By , August 19, 2012

Happy times - Gu Kailai, Bo Xilai & son Bo Guagua

On Monday morning (Beijing time) the Hefei Intermediate Court will announce its verdict in the murder trial of Gu Kailai (pronounced Goo Kai-lie), wife of Chongqing’s purged Party Secretary and former rising star, Bo Xilai (pronounced Bwo See-lie).   The world will be waiting but not because the verdict is uncertain (Gu will be found guilty) or because she will receive the death penalty (likely her sentences will be commuted to death penalty with 2 year reprieve, a.k.a. life sentence); the world will be watching more because this absurd tale of kangaroo justice mixed with seemingly bizarre and inconsistent facts will finally come to an end.

August 9, 2012: The Eight Hour Murder Trial

Gu is accused of murdering one-time family friend and British businessman Neil Heywood in order to protect her son, Bo Guagua (pronounced Bwo Gwa-gwa).  While the eight-hour trial was publicized in the Chinese press, the evidence against Gu is flimsy at best.  Even the prosecutor’s arguments seemingly contradict the facts and common sense.  At the trial, prosecutors argued that Gu was motivated by a motherly (and as presented to the court mentally unstable) need to protect her adult son.

Allegedly, Heywood kidnapped Bo Guagua, kept him in his basement in England, and threatened his safety after a business deal went bust.  To

Neil Heywood, allegedly murdered by Gu Kailai

protect her son, in November 2011, Gu allegedly hatched a Tudor-esqe plan to convince Heywood to come to Chongqing where she met him at his hotel room, had him drink copious amounts of wine and tea, watched him vomit and then gave him a glass of water mixed with cyanide.  When Heywood’s dead body was discovered two days later, on November 16, 2011, by hotel staff, Gu allegedly convinced his wife in Beijing to cremate the body.

None of this makes sense, at least in terms of justice and accountability.  Since 2010, Gu’s son has lived in the United States, attending Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and Politics (he graduated May 2012).  At the very latest, Bo Guagua’s “kidnapping” would have occurred in early 2010, when he was a student at Oxford.  But wouldn’t Oxford have been aware of a missing student?  Wouldn’t a protective mother call the British police at the time to alert them of the kidnapping of her son?  Other than Gu’s “confession” and other witnesses’ statements read into the record by prosecutors, no tangible evidence was presented.

Gu Kailai – A Pawn in Her Husband’s Purge?

But this trial is not about sense, justice or accountability.  Instead, with its lack of evidence and with its fantastical soap-opera explanations, it is a song-and-dance number put on by the Chinese Communist Party (“CCP”) to explain the downfall of Gu’s husband, Bo Xilai.

Since 2007, Bo has had a successful run as Chongqing Party Secretary.  Starting in 2009, Bo lead a popular crack-down on corruption, prosecuting thousands of black market operatives.  Under Bo’s leadership, no one was safe; even corrupt politicians were prosecuted.   Chongqing, once the bastion of organized crime, had been cleaned up under Bo and its people were very happy.

As Chongqing Party Secretary, Bo also began efforts to revitalize Maoism.  Calling on the people to sing “red songs” and for the young to go to the countryside, Bo harkened back to the days of the Cultural Revolution.  Bo’s neo-Maoism was criticized in the Western press but was not opposed by all in Chongqing.  Namely, the “losers” of China’s economic development benefitted from Bo’s focus on public work projects and subsidized housing for the poor.

In Chongqing, Bo was becoming a powerful politician with an already regal pedigree (Bo is known as a “princeling,” the son of one of Communist China’s founding leaders).  By the middle of 2011, Bo had positioned himself perfectly for a powerful, national position with China’s change in leadership set for October 2012.  A position on the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee was not out of reach.

But Bo’s downfall began, not with the November 14, 2011 death of Neil Heywood, but with Wang Lijun’s – Chongqing’s police chief and long-time Bo ally –  alleged attempted asylum at the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu.  On February 6, 2012, Wang fled to the U.S. Consulate, allegedly fearing for his life and confessing to U.S. Consulate staff the secrets of Bo Xilai’s reign.  The U.S. did not provide Wang with asylum; once he left the consulate, Chinese officials boarded Wang on a flight to Beijing to be disciplined by the Party.

On March 15, 2012, Bo was dismissed as Chongqing Party Secretary although retained his position on the Politburo (but not yet the Standing Committee).  On April 10, 2012, the Chinese government announced its investigation of Gu Kailai for the November 14, 2011 murder of Neil Heywood and dismissed Bo from his remaining Party positions, effectively purging him.

Gu at her murder trial.

But did Gu actually kill Neil Heywood?  With the minimal “evidence” presented at trial, it’s unclear.  It could be that Heywood unexpectedly died while in Chongqing or that someone else killed Heywood and that pinning the murder of Gu is a more pleasant way for the Party to explain Bo’s purge than the actual truth.

Does a One-Party Authoritarian Dictatorship Need to Explain Its Purge?

In the past, the CCP has purged Party leaders without any explanation.  But in the case of Bo – with his international stature, relative popularity among the people, good looks, and money – purging him without any explanation would raise eyebrows to say the least.  One thing the CCP cannot have as it jockeys its leadership transition, is a public who questions its legitimacy.

The internet, fervent micro-blogging and greater access to information (even if it is government-censored), leaves the CCP susceptible to rumors (or in some cases, to uncovering the truth).  Some Party-approved narrative is necessary to explain a popular politician’s purge.  Here, Bo’s downfall is his wife’s alleged murder of Neil Heywood.   The criminal trial – held in a Hefei, not Chongqing court – adds further legitimacy to the Party’s narrative.

But even more importantly, the trial serves as an important signaling device for China’s internet users.  By leaking some information to the government-controlled press from the trial regarding the Party-approved narrative, the Party puts Chinese society on notice as to the acceptable dialogue surrounding Bo’s purge.

But Will the Trial of Gu Kailai Ultimately Bite the CCP in the Butt? 

It could be that Gu killed Heywood.  It could also be that she didn’t and that her trial is being used to mask the real reasons for Bo’s purge.  But

Yes, some more so than others.

regardless, the flimsy manner in which Gu will likely be convicted gives the appearance of her innocence.  The facts just don’t make sense and not just to the Western audience.  Likely many in the Chinese audience see this as well (they just know that they can’t talk about it).

The Party put on this show trial to bolster its legitimacy.  But ultimately it’s this trial that will undermine the Party’s legitimacy.  The CCP has a serious trust problem with its people – its people know that food safety is flouted with abandon, that government officials’ children get away with murder, that government statistics on air pollution are a lie, and now that something weird is going on within the Party over Bo Xilai.  But a people’s trust of its own government is necessary to its ultimate success.  Yes, in every country, people question some aspect of their government or their history, but not to the extent that happens in China.  Without trust, at some point the government won’t be able to function. So the question emerges, how many lies can the CCP continue to tell before its house of cards comes tumbling down?

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