By Peter Humphrey
Bogged down by a trade war with America, unrest in Hong Kong, a slowing economy and a surge of ill will across the planet, the People’s Republic of China is seeing in its 70th anniversary on the back foot, and keen to stir some favourable sentiment. At home, in the run-up to the celebrations, its ruler Xi Jinping has announced a grand gesture to release possibly thousands of prisoners from China’s murky jails. Or so it is meant to be seen.
But read the small print, and do some maths, and a different picture emerges.
Chinese media have slyly misnamed it as a “pardon” or “amnesty” in English. But when you read between the lines in Chinese, not many if any prisoners at all are being forgiven for alleged crimes, which is what a pardon or amnesty should represent. The order is, in fact, a propaganda act, an illusion, a “parole” of sorts at most, for the sort of prisoner whose release does not amount to much in the scales of justice.
President Xi has signed an edict that sets out nine criteria for prisoners who could qualify for release. People familiar with China’s penal system are sceptical. “I have never met anybody in prison who would meet the special conditions for [a] so-called pardon,” one prisoner who recently completed his sentence told me. “It is a sham.”
I tend to agree. The edict created nine categories that do not represent the bulk of the prison population, while most prisoners will be prohibited from any pardon or parole at all.
China is wary about disclosing the number of prisoners it holds. But in mid-2015, the country claimed it held almost 1.65 million convicted prisoners in its jails, according to information gathered from official sources and published in the World Prison Brief. It was also estimated at that time that one million are held in regular pre-prosecution detention centres. That would mean around 2.5 million regular detainees and prisoners overall. But many analysts believe the numbers are much higher and have surged exponentially under Xi, with many incarcerations going unrecorded.
So who are actually the lucky people who might be set free this October 1?
In a nutshell, President Xi’s category 1 covers people who fought in the anti-Japanese war of the 1930s and 1940s, and the Chinese civil war that ended in 1949. He included the same category in a parole Xi ordered in 2015. Any beneficiaries will now be 90 to 100 years old. Having also been included in the similar 2015 parole gesture. Why are they still there at all?
Category 2 was also listed in 2015. It is for people who have fought for China since 1949. Considering China was not at war for most of the past 70 years, and that the last military excursion was a border war with Vietnam in 1979, they are also a rare species in China’s jails and far from being representative prisoners. And pretty old, too. Should they still be inside?
Category 3 is for people who “made big contributions to the country’s projects,” a group previously referred to as “exemplary workers.” Category 4 is for decorated members of the armed forces. Category 5 is for convicts with three-year sentences, with less than a year left to serve who have performed heroic actions in captivity, putting their lives at risk in emergencies like prison fires and prison factory accidents, probably losing a limb or two (They can be heroes, just for one day).
Category 6, also mentioned in 2015, is for over-75-year-olds “with serious physical difficulties” who are “unable to take care of themselves. It is hard to understand why they are still in jail if this is their condition. What this means is old men and women cared for by fellow prisoners who could otherwise be toiling in the prison factories. Both the ailing convict and those who care for them are a drain on resources that could otherwise be making profits for the prison administration. The entire prison system in China is funded through forced labour, making textiles, sports shoes, electronic components for the subcontractors of well-known brands, and daily household hardware that you can see in many domestic hardware stores around the world. So in this category, Xi is just proposing to get rid of knackered horses who cost the prisons money.
Category 7 is people who offended when they were under 18, got three-year sentences and have less than one year to serve. Category 8 is women who are widows and have “under-aged” children with serious disabilities, but only if they have less than one year left to serve. No mention of how these handicapped kids have been surviving motherless when mum was locked up in the “mother culture” of China’s prison system.
And category 9 is for people on suspended sentences. Big deal.
But here is the rub. There is a second list in Xi’s decree, a list of exclusions, which snatches back the right to exceptional parole in one and the same breath prisoners who at first glance fit Xi’s nine classifications. What Xi’s edict does is give with one hand and immediately take it back with the other.
Anybody who has committed embezzlement (no mention of fraud here, though), bribe-taking, murder, robbery, arson, organised violence, terrorism, for example, does not qualify at all even if they fit one of the nine categories (and regardless of good behaviour and time served). Also excluded are anyone who has over 10 more years to serve, those on life terms, and those under a “suspended death penalty.” Prisoners who were previously paroled but who later re-offended and were re-imprisoned will also not benefit.
And then there are those who “refused to admit their guilt,” regardless of whether they are innocent or not, and those who are deemed “an actual threat to society,” a point which is not defined in the decree but which has been introduced in this edict by Xi for the first time. This is an item that will bar the release of political prisoners who in reality have never committed a crime in their lifetime. Disturbingly, there is no mention of the actual sentences of people in this category. Many of them are serving reckless and pernicious long sentences.
Those excluded due to “refusing to admit their guilt” have been barred from release because they refuse to play along with a system of brainwashing that comprises “thought reform,” “admission of guilt reports “and “repentance reports,” without which prisoners cannot earn the requisite merit points to become eligible even to apply for a sentence reduction, even if their overall personal conduct is good, as I have witnessed inside the prisons. Many captives in the Chinese jails have caved in and complied with this regime, but they have been disappointed when reductions were virtually wiped out after 2013 on Xi’s orders.
This one-off parole will also certainly not extend to the many held without trial and not sentenced by any court, in a murky condition operated under the misnomer and euphemism of Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location (RSDL), a form of forced disappearance, in which prisoners are locked up outside the legal and judicial system and denied all rights.
To be sure, there will be no political prisoners on the release list. Nor any former Party officials who Xi has jailed under the cloak of his anti-corruption drive but whose offence was to belong to a rival political faction. The bookseller Gui Minhai—a Swedish citizen of Chinese origin—who Beijing kidnapped in Thailand and smuggled to an RSDL detention place in China, will not be on the list. Nor will hundreds of thousands of ethnic Uighurs who Xi has tossed into prison camps in Xinjiang to suppress their religious and cultural identity. Nor will the two Canadian hostages Michael Spavor and Michel Kovrig, accused of spying in Beijing. All of those will be conspicuous for their absence—even if innocent.
You can bet that the scores of defence lawyers who were thrown in jail in 2015 will not be pardoned either. Nor will there be any amnesty for the 100 targets on Xi’s “economic fugitive” list for extradition or rendition from abroad, one of his signature policies known as Operation Fox Hunt. This year, resistance broke out against extraditions to China in Sweden, New Zealand and Hong Kong, virtually shredding Xi’s policy, because much of the world believes nobody deserves to be handed over to China’s coercive legal system where there are no fair and transparent trials, no prospect of humane treatment, and very little plausibility in any charges, three key tests on which extraditions must be decided.
China claims it has implemented nine such exceptional paroles (variously named) in the history of the 70-year-old People’s Republic. As a China watcher and analyst for the past 45 years, I note that earlier grand paroles including the one by Xi in 2015 were similarly vacuous.
The distinguished Nobel Peace Laureate Liu Xiaobo never received a pardon and died in jail from cancer in 2017 after appropriate medical treatment was denied him.
In the Chinese prisons in 2013-2015, I saw one prisoner die in screaming agony from lung cancer, un-medicated and with no family allowed to sit by his bed in his final moments. I saw ailing over-70-year-olds denied an early release. Other critically and chronically ill prisoners denied treatment or medical parole could only pray for survival. I know of a Canadian citizen dying of a lymphoma cancer right now in Shanghai. Since my own release, three inmates who I knew have served their terms and are now at home dying from cancers. So why aren’t the critically sick of all ages on Xi’s grand “pardon” list regardless of sentences and offences? After all, whether we call them pardons, amnesties or paroles, they are supposed to be acts of mercy. Does that word not come into the frame at all?
Peter Humphrey has been a sinologist for 45 years and is a research affiliate of Harvard University’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. In a widely publicised case, he and his wife were imprisoned in Shanghai for two years on false charges of illegally acquiring information, while operating a due diligence and anti-fraud consultancy.