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Criminal Justice in China: From the Gang of Four to Bo Xilai

Author: Jerome A. Cohen, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Asia Studies
July 25, 2013
Human Rights Watch


The Chinese government's prosecutions of Bo Xilai, deposed Politburo leader, and Gu Kailai, his allegedly murderous wife, have again brought China's criminal justice system to world attention. As a citizen's most important protection against a government's arbitrary exercise of power over his person, criminal justice is perhaps the most telling indication of a government's adherence to human rights standards. What can be said about the administration of criminal justice in the People's Republic of China (PRC) 64 years after its establishment?

As Bo's trial approaches, I reflect on my experience in China watching a broadcast of part of the Gang of Four's 1980-81 trial, with hopes both raised and dashed by the proceedings. While there have since been significant improvements in China's system of justice, it is sobering to note how little today's essentials have changed in comparison with the Gang of Four trial or even the unsophisticated pre-Cultural Revolution system depicted in my 1968 book on the criminal process.

With new leadership recently installed by the Communist Party's 18th National Congress, this is a good time to reconsider the question of criminal justice, one of the gravest challenges confronting the Party and the Chinese people.

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