Leniency in Chinese Criminal Law? Everyday Justice in Henan

Benjamin L. Liebman, Columbia Law School


This article examines one-year of publicly available criminal judgments from one basic-level rural county court and one intermediate court in Henan Province in order to better understand trends in routine criminal adjudication in China. I present an account of ordinary criminal justice in China 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. My account of ordinary cases in China contrasts with most western accounts of the Chinese criminal justice system, which focus on sensational cases of injustice and the prevalence of harsh punishments.

The evidence I present provides insight into the roles being played by the Chinese criminal justice system and the functions of courts in that system. This article also provides empirical evidence that contributes to debates on a range of other issues, including the relationship of formal law to community norms in Chinese criminal justice, the roles of witnesses and lawyers, the function of appellate review, and how system confronts and handles a range of high profile topics. My findings also contribute to literature on courts in authoritarian regimes and the evolution of authoritarian transparency. This article 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 in China.