Domestic Affairs

China's deepening commitment to the rule of law

By Patrick Mattimore (
Updated: 2010-07-01 09:34
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In late May, China's Supreme People's Court along with four other ministries released a regulation seeking to halt the use of torture in obtaining a suspect's confession. The regulation is effective on July 1.

The new rule excludes oral evidence which has been coerced from defendants and holds that such evidence may not serve as the basis for a conviction.

It has been widely reported that the Court and other judicial organs took that step at least partly as a response following the case of a man wrongfully jailed for a murder that never occurred. The man, Zhao Zuohai, was tortured, confessed to murder, and imprisoned for ten years; the alleged victim showed up alive earlier this year.

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The regulation implicitly acknowledges why tortured confessions are inherently unreliable. Consider the following hypothetical situation. Suppose the police have evidence of a crime which points towards two possible suspects. Suppose further that the evidence suggests that the crime was committed by a single person. Now assume that the police arrest one of the suspects, torture him, and he confesses.

Case solved, right? Obviously, not. It's just as likely that had the police first arrested the other suspect for the crime, or indeed anyone, that they could have obtained a confession without getting any nearer the truth of what happened. In fact, by "closing the book on a crime" with a tortured confession, police may ironically allow criminals to escape justice. In addition to the obvious strictures which a society must place on torturing innocent persons, torture ironically impedes investigations rather than furthers them.

Although confessions are compelling evidence, since we logically expect that no one will admit to bad things they haven't done, there are other reasons for courts to be suspicious of all confessions, not just confessions that are obtained by way of torture.

For example, police may induce confessions with promises of leniency. A suspect may confess to a crime she has not committed in order to protect another person. People may confess under conditions of deprivation not amounting to clear-cut cases of torture. It is imperative, therefore, that before courts convict someone, that judges have sufficient non confessional evidence that a crime has occurred and that the defendant is responsible.

It is altogether fitting and proper that five days after the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture (June 26), China's regulation has effectuated a policy in China which the government ratified in 1988. That year, the Chinese government adopted the UN's Convention against Torture. Article 15 of the CAT specifically excludes coerced confessions in judicial proceedings.

The new regulation strengthens China's legal system and should provide an additional rationale for people to have confidence that the government is deepening its commitment to the rule of law in China.

The author is an adjunct professor of law at Tsinghua University and a fellow at the Institute for Analytic Journalism.