Crime and punishment for corrupt officials

Updated: 2013-08-29 07:26

By Ji Zhebu in Beijing (China Daily)

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 Crime and punishment for corrupt officials

This screen grab shows Liu Zhijun, the former railways minister, who received a suspended death sentence in July. Provided to China Daily

Crime and punishment for corrupt officials

The trial of former Chongqing Party chief Bo Xilai, the verdict of which is to be announced at a later date, has fueled public debate about the punishments that should be meted out to corrupt officials.

According to a recent study by Tian Guoliang, a professor with the Party School of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, since the 1980s, 103 officials at the level of vice-minister or above have been tried in court. Around 80 percent were found guilty of bribery and embezzlement. Of those, six were sentenced to death, 27 were given suspended death sentences, 17 were sentenced to life imprisonment, and a further 44 were given sentences of varying lengths.

Chinese criminal law states that anyone who embezzles more than 100,000 yuan ($16,340) can be sentenced to death if the court deems the offense serious enough. Tian's survey shows that the suspended death sentence and life imprisonment account for a high proportion of the sentences handed down to corrupt officials.

The law is too lenient on officials who have accepted large bribes or embezzled large sums of money, said Hu Bensheng, a sales manager at a State-owned enterprise in Beijing. He cited the example of Liu Zhijun, the former railways minister, who was found guilty of accepting bribes of more than 60 million yuan. Liu escaped the ultimate punishment, but was sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve.

Hu's opinion was shared by a large number of users of social networking sites such as Sina Weibo, China's most popular micro-blogging service, and WeChat, an instant-chat platform.

The discussions focused not only on the sentences handed down to corrupt officials, but also on the time they actually spend in prison.

"Corrupt officials who deserve the death sentence should all be executed by shooting. Otherwise, they will find a way to save their lives with the money they have embezzled," wrote a commentator called Zou Xingyu on Tencent Weibo, another popular micro-blogging site.

"The people will be bitterly disappointed if the courts do not punish corrupt officials to the full extent of the law. Once the rulers lose the support of the people, they will lose the world," wrote another micro-blogger, who used the pseudonym "Breeze Over The Lotus Pond."

"The general public has a reason to demand severe punishments for corrupt government officials, because, in practice, only a small number of them receive heavy sentences. The majority are punished mildly after they confess their crimes or hand back part of the illicit money to the investigators," said Liu Xiaoyuan, a lawyer from Beijing Fengrui Law Firm.

Stock phrases

Some commentators have complained that they hear the same stock phrases whenever corrupt officials are sentenced, saying that the usual line is this: Although Official X is guilty of embezzlement or accepting bribes, thereby causing great damage to society, he has admitted his crime and returned the money, and thus merits lenient treatment.

Examples of this include the suspended death sentences or life imprisonment handed down to a number of corrupt, former high-level officials, including Huang Sheng, former vice-governor of Shandong province, and Li Jiating, former governor of Yunnan province.

"Actually, a suspended death sentence and life imprisonment are already very harsh punishments, but the public still thinks that's not enough," Zhao Sanping, director of Beijing Guangheng Law Firm, said.

"The public seldom has the chance to access information about sentenced officials, including their lives in prison, so it's inevitable that the public believes that a suspended death sentence equals commutation, and commutation equals parole and freedom," he said.

The public is also concerned about whether the amount of time corrupt officials spent in prison is being reduced because of a lack of transparency, he added.

The Eighth Amendment of the Criminal Law, enacted in 2011, introduced a cap on the duration of commuted sentences, stipulating that those found guilty of murder, rape and kidnapping but whose death sentence has been commuted must stay in prison for at least 27 years.

However, officials given a suspended death sentence in the wake of being convicted of embezzlement or accepting bribes were not included in the amendment's scope.

Therefore, "if a person sentenced to death with a suspension of execution does not commit an intentional crime within the period of suspension, his punishment shall be commuted to life imprisonment upon the expiration of that two-year period; if he performs great meritorious service, his punishment shall be commuted to fixed-term imprisonment of not less than 15 years and not more than 20 years upon the expiration of that two-year period", according to the English translation of Section Five of Article 50 of the Criminal Law of the People's Republic of China on the website chinalawedu.

That effectively means that once a sentence has been commuted to death with a two-year suspension, the official will only serve 13 years in prison. Those with serious health problems may be granted a medical parole, and experts say the circumstances make it difficult to estimate how long they will spend in prison.

Sentencing criteria

With China's economy booming in recent years, the money on offer to corrupt officials, especially those at a high level, can be as much as several million yuan or even hundreds of millions of yuan.

"The 100,000 yuan threshold is already out of date," said Zhao Bingzhi, dean of the College for Criminal Law Science at Beijing Normal University.

"As far as I know, the legislation department has already noticed it (the anomaly) and an amendment is on the agenda," said Zhao, who is also chairman of the Institute of Criminal Law under the China Law Society

"The public may think that the death sentence is the only one corrupt officials deserve, but scrapping the death penalty is a big trend across the world. In the long run, the death penalty for both bribery and embezzlement should be abolished. And I don't think the death penalty is the most effective way of punishing corruption; if it were, we wouldn't have so many corrupt officials today," he said.

"The effectiveness of punishment not lies in its cruelty and mercilessness, but in the inevitability of being caught. We should extend the supervision network," he added.

Zhao's words were echoed by Hu Xingdou, a political analyst and professor of economics at the Beijing Institute of Technology.

"The primary focus of China's anti-corruption efforts should be on prosecuting more corrupt officials, rather than sentencing more officials to death. If the number of prosecutions is too low, corrupt officials will not be intimidated by the law - even if those who are caught face the death penalty - because they all think that luck will eventually favor them," Hu said

Lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan urged the Supreme People's Court to make the existing sentencing criteria available to the public.

The general public usually takes the amount of money embezzled by corrupt officials as the only criterion, so sometimes the differences in the sentences cause confusion.

For example, in 2007, Zheng Xiaoyu, former director of the China Food and Drug Administration, was sentenced to death for accepting 6.49 million yuan in bribes and for dereliction of duty. In July, Liu Zhijun, the former railways minister, received the death sentence with a two-year reprieve for taking 64.6 million yuan in bribes and for abuse of power. In 2009, Chen Tonghai, former chairman of Chinese oil giant Sinopec, was given a suspended death sentence after being convicted of taking 195 million yuan in bribes.

Ren Jianming, director of the Clean Governance Research and Education Center at Beihang University in Beijing, said the sentences handed down to some high-profile corrupt officials in recent years were "reasonable".

"A court sentence is handed down after consideration of many factors, including the severity of the case, the damage done to society and whether the criminal has made a full confession or has any extenuating circumstances," he said

Zheng Xiaoyu was executed, because food and drug safety is closely connected with public health, while Xu Maiyong and Jiang Renjie - two low-level local officials executed for corruption - received the death sentence because they had embezzled record amounts for the time.

"Sometimes, judges also feel under pressure when handing down a death penalty for financial crime because of the growing movement against capital punishment," said Ren.

'A major political task'

Professor Hu said China lacks an effective system to prevent corruption. He suggested that the government should establish a system under which public officials are forced to disclose their personal assets and financial dealings and administration are more transparent. Moreover, officials should be subject to greater media scrutiny.

The Politburo of the CPC Central Committee said on Tuesday that building an anti-corruption system is "a major political task" and the responsibility of every member of Chinese society. In a statement released after its Tuesday meeting, the Politburo vowed to reform the CPC discipline inspection system. It also pledged to update the anti-corruption mechanism and improve the CPC's supervision and inspection systems at all levels, according to Xinhua News Agency.

The abuse of power by officials must be checked and greater supervision should be employed to create a system in which officials dare not be corrupt and the opportunities for corruption are limited, it said.

"Prison staff write the recommendations for the reduction of sentences based on prisoners' behavior. The court then makes a final decision based on that material. But it's hard to avoid favoritism, and it would be better if the process were to be carried out publicly to reduce the chances of favoritism," said Zhao, the law firm director.

Li Fenfei, associate professor at the Law School at Renmin University of China, was quoted by Oriental Outlook as suggesting that representatives from the prosecution, victims and their relatives, the prisoner and local communities should play a part in the sentence-reduction procedure. He also said victims should be able to appeal what they believe to be unduly lenient reductions to reassure the public that the process is just.

Xu Xin, professor at the School of Law of the Beijing Institute of Technology, suggested that the courts should make information about trials and sentences available to the public, and the public and the media should be allowed to attend trials.

"Bo Xilai's case set an example of how to make information about highly sensitive trials involving influential individuals available to the public. Hopefully, it will become a model for future cases, and the judges' actions will be open to the public gaze," said Xu.

Xu said he hopes the Supreme People's Court will release more "guidance" cases to courts at all levels as reference material. He also called for the courts - especially the Supreme People's Court - to make all deliberations about sentencing public, so the plaintiff, the defendant, lawyers and the public can compare sentences in similar cases to see if there are huge discrepancies.

(China Daily USA 08/29/2013 page5)