Whenever asked about China's latest criminal prosecution of a human rights advocate, the foreign ministry says it is being handled "in accordance with law". This sounds assuring, but what does it mean? Last week's trial of Xu Zhiyong , which the ministry termed "a common criminal case", provides an occasion for inquiry.
Apparently, the ministry was referring to the fact that Xu was being charged with a mundane offence under the Criminal Law – "gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place". The words of this offence are general, even vague. They require definition and application by police, prosecutors and, ultimately, courts. Otherwise, Chinese lack adequate warning of what conduct is prohibited, and the government can easily deprive them of the freedoms of speech, religion and assembly guaranteed by the constitution.
The administration of criminal justice inevitably involves the exercise of discretion. What factors are allowed to influence the exercise of that discretion in China? What procedures must be followed in applying the law?