Chinese Statistics Indicate More Than 99 Percent of Criminal Defendants Found Guilty in 2004

May 27, 2005

Chinese government statistics on the criminal justice system in 2004 demonstrate that criminal suspects stand little chance of escaping criminal penalties once police decide to pursue formal charges against them. The numbers also show that Chinese trial courts rarely acquit criminal suspects at trial. According to various official sources:

  • Public security agencies filed more than 4.72 million criminal cases in 2004 and "solved" 2.45 million, or 52 percent, of these cases. Assuming that each case involved only one criminal suspect (a conservative assumption), police referred fewer than 40 percent of the suspects in "solved" cases to prosecutors for arrest and indictment.(1)
  • Prosecutors approved the arrest of 811,102 suspects and refused to approve the arrest of 67,904 suspects in 2004. Suspects thus had a 7.7 percent chance that prosecutors would reject public security applications for a formal arrest in 2004.
  • Prosecutors decided to indict 867,186 suspects and refused to indict 21,554 suspects in 2004. Once prosecutors approved an arrest, therefore, suspects had only a 2.4 percent chance that prosecutors would decide not to proceed to trial.
  • Criminal courts of first instance completed the trials of 767,951 defendants in 2004 and found only 3,364 defendants (0.4 percent) not guilty. An additional 12,345, or 1.6 percent, of defendants "avoided criminal punishment."
  • Criminal courts completed appeals of 96,204 criminal cases. Appeals courts changed the original judgment in 12,730, or 13.2 percent, of all cases heard on appeal. In addition, courts changed judgments in 1,371 criminal cases that were given an additional rehearing under court adjudication supervision procedures. In total, appeals courts canceled 2.1 percent of the first instance verdicts in the 644,248 total criminal cases adjudicated in 2004. However, statistics for previous years suggest that most “changed judgments” are sentence reductions, not reversals of guilty verdicts. As such, the rate at which appeals courts overturned judgments in 2004 is likely much lower than indicated here.(2)

These statistics suggest several conclusions about China’s criminal justice system. First, suspects face difficult obstacles and low chances of success at each stage of the criminal process. Second, suspects have their best chance of avoiding criminal sanction early in the criminal process, when prosecutors review police applications for formal arrest. Once prosecutors indict a suspect, courts find 99.6 percent of them guilty and sentence 98 percent of those found guilty to criminal punishment. Third, defendants appeal convictions in only about 15 percent of cases, suggesting that most defendants believe they have little chance of overturning a guilty verdict on appeal. Appeals courts overturn only a small percentage of guilty verdicts. Finally, only a small percentage of the cases that police solve are handled in the criminal justice system. This fact suggests either that a significant percentage of suspects escape sanction at the investigation stage, or that public security bureaus characterize the majority of criminal cases as "minor crimes" to be handled in the administrative justice system, where public security officials may mete out punishments of up to three years detention without effective review by prosecutors or courts.

See below for a further explanation of the assumptions made with regard to the statistics above and for links to relevant sources.



Notes and Comments:
(1) Public security sources do not provide the total number of individuals involved in the cases solved. The 644,248 criminal cases tried by Chinese courts in 2004 involved a total of 767,951 individuals, an average of 1.44 defendants per case. Thus, the assumption of 1 suspect per case filed by public security is a conservative one.

(2) In China, prosecutors may appeal a “not guilty” verdict, but given the conviction rate of more than 99 percent in first instance cases, it is assumed that almost all of the 96,204 cases heard on appeal involve guilty verdicts at the trial level. In addition to changing the verdict in 12,730 cases, appeals courts sent 6,198 cases back to trial courts for retrial. In at least one prior year in which a similar number of judgments were “changed” or case were sent back for retrial, court statistics indicate that the total conviction rate in all cases, including appeals and rehearings, was over 99 percent (see,for example, the 2002 China Law Yearbook). This suggests that few verdicts are “changed” to not guilty and that few defendants are exonerated after retrials. Recent Chinese media accounts also suggest that trial courts commonly reconvict defendants on re-trial.

Source Links
Supreme People’s Court Work Report
Supreme People’s Procuratorate Work Report
National Court Statistics: Criminal Cases; Second Instance Cases; Rehearing Cases
Ministry of Public Security Statistics