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Chinese civilization, dating back 3,500 years, has long been one of the world’s most innovative and influential societies. The last Chinese dynasty, the Qing dynasty, was established in 1644 and was characterized by great expansionism, military prowess, and a highly organized bureaucracy. However, the Qing dynasty was eventually forced to abdicate and a non-dynastic republic was erected. A civil war plagued this republic and was fought between the Kuomintang (KMT) nationalists and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), with the ultimate victory awarded to the CCP. In 1949, the CCP established the modern-day People’s Republic of China led by Mao Zedong. China under Mao experienced extreme economic overhauls, as well as famine, poverty, and a severe Cultural Revolution. Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, reformed the communist agenda and China began to experience greater economic development and social improvements. Today, China is the world’s second-largest economy.
Type of system
China's criminal justice system consists of public security bureaus, procuratorates, courts, and correctional institutions. The respective roles of these branches are as follows: the public security branches are responsible for the investigation, detention, and preparatory examination of criminal cases; the people's procuratorates are responsible for approving arrest, conducting procuratorial work (including some investigation), and initiating public prosecution; the people's courts are responsible for adjudication; and the prison or other facilities are responsible for sentence execution.
The Chinese court system is based on a civil law system, modeled after Soviet and continental legal principles. China’s court system has four levels. The highest court is the Supreme People's Court which sits in Beijing. At the next level there are the Higher People's Courts which sit in the provinces, autonomous regions and special municipalities (i.e., Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing and Tianjin). Then there are Intermediate People's Courts which sit at the prefecture level (a level of division between the province and county levels – most frequently, these are cities that are given prefecture status and the right to govern surrounding counties) and also in parts of provinces, autonomous regions, and special municipalities. There are also basic People's Courts in counties, towns, and districts. The jurisdiction of each of these courts depends on the nature and complexity of the case.
China’s criminal laws are codified in a Criminal Law (revised 2021), and in the regulations, rules, and opinions which are meant to further clarify and interpret various provisions of the Criminal Law. The criminal law process is governed by the Criminal Procedure Law (revised 2018), which also governs the rights of defendants and defenders.
There is no jury system in China. Criminal cases are heard either by a single judge, a panel of judges, or by a mixed panel of judges with lay people (“people’s assessors”). In regular cases, the mixed tribunal is composed of one professional judge and two people’s assessors. But in major cases, the mixed tribunal should contain three professional judges and four people’s assessors (see the 2018 People’s Assessors Law, art.16). In serious cases (including most homicide cases), a judicial committee composed of the president, vice presidents, division chiefs and other leading officials of the court will decide the case.
Legal Aid in China
Legal aid in China is governed by the Legal Aid Law which was introduced by the National People‘s Congress (NPC) Standing Committee in August 2021 and took effect in January 2022.
The judicial administrative department of the local government is tasked with setting up a legal aid agency, which will be responsible for the provision of legal aid (Legal Aid Law, Art.12). The work of the agency covers three aspects: accepting and reviewing applications for legal aid; appointing personnel to provide legal aid; and paying legal aid subsidies to legal aid personnel.
There are three types of legal aid personnel: lawyers, grass-roots legal service workers, and legal aid volunteers (Legal Aid Law, Art.12). Lawyers include both private lawyers from law firms and in-house lawyers at legal aid agencies. Legal aid services include: legal advice; drafting legal documents; criminal defense and representation; litigation and non-litigation representation in civil, administrative and state-compensation cases; legal assistance from duty lawyers; labor dispute mediation and arbitration representation; and other circumstances stipulated by laws, regulations and rules. (Legal Aid Law, Art.22)
In criminal cases, the suspect/defendant may apply for legal aid due to financial difficulties or other reasons, and the legal aid agency will review and decide whether to grant the aid (Legal Aid Law, Art.24). However, legal aid must be provided to the suspect/defendant if they belong to one of the following persons and has not entrusted an attorney for defense: minors; persons with visual, hearing, and speech disabilities; adults who cannot fully recognize their behavior; persons who may be sentenced to life imprisonment or death penalty; defendants in death penalty review cases applying for legal aid; defendants of a case tried in absentia; and other persons specified by laws and regulations. (Legal Aid Law, Art.25)
A duty lawyer system was created under the 2018 revision to the Criminal Procedure Law. Legal aid agencies may station duty lawyers at the people's courts, jails, and other places. If a criminal suspect or defendant has not appointed a defender, and a legal aid agency has not appointed a lawyer to defend him or her, a duty lawyer shall provide the criminal suspect or defendant with legal assistance including but not limited to legal advice, recommendations on the selection of procedures, application for the modification of compulsory measures, and offering opinions on the handling of the case (CPL, Art.36). The intent is that duty lawyers act in the interim until a defender is secured.
Rights of Defendants
The Chinese Constitution, which was amended in 2003, does not have legal authority in court decisions.  Nevertheless, Article 37 of the Constitution states that the freedom of Chinese citizens is absolute, that no one may be arrested without the approval of a public security office, and that no one may be unlawfully detained. However, since the Chinese Constitution is not self-executing, these rights do not necessarily protect citizens.
General Rights of the Criminal Defendant
- The right to use their ethnic language and script to conduct litigation. (Criminal Procedure Law (hereinafter “CPL”), Art.9)
- The right to submit an accusation against adjudicators, procurators and investigators who infringe on citizen's procedural rights and cause personal insult. (CPL, Art.14)
- The right to request the recusal of adjudicators, procurators and investigators. (CPL, Art.29)
- The right to a defender. (CPL, Art.33)
- The right to a legal aid lawyer if qualified (CPL, Art.35)
- The right to represent him/herself (CPL, Art.33)
- The right to meet with a duty lawyer. (CPL, Art.26)
- The right to meet and communicate with a lawyer. (CPL, Art.39)
- The right to refuse the defenders' continued defense, and separately retain a defender for his defense. (CPL, Art.45)
- The right to a publicly announced decision to not prosecute, and the right to be released immediately. (CPL, Art.178)
- The right to not be compelled to prove one’s own guilt (CPL, Art.52)
Investigation Stage & Prosecution Stage
- The right to an audio or video recording of the interrogation process. (CPL, Art.123)
- The right to not be tortured. (CPL, Art.52)
- The right to not be threatened, lured, deceived, or subjected to other illegal methods of obtaining evidence. (CPL, Art,56)
- The right to not be illegally detained to obtain evidence. (CPL, Arts.56,58)
- The right to refuse to answer questions that are not relevant to the case. (CPL, Art.120)
- Consecutive summonses and custodial summonses must not be used to covertly confine a criminal suspect. When suspects are summoned or put under custodial summons, their food, water and necessary rest time shall be ensured. (CPL, Art.119)
- The right of deaf or mute suspects to a person who understands sign language during the interrogation. (CPL, Art.121)
- The right to check, supplement or correct the interrogation record. (CPL, Art.122)
- The right of female suspects to be searched and inspected by female personnel or doctors. (CPL, Articles 132, 139)
- The right to a warrant of custody, arrest and search. (CPL, Articles 85, 93, 138)
- The right to apply for a change in compulsory measures. (CPL, Art.97)
- The right to bail. (CPL, Art.65)
- The right to a public trial and defense. (CPL, Art.11)
- The right to not be found guilty except by the lawful judgment of a people's court. (CPL, Art.12)
- The right to apply to the court to have new witnesses notified to appear, to have new physical evidence collected, or to apply for a new evaluation or inquisition. (CPL, Art.197)
- The right to apply for the exclusion of illegally obtained evidence. (CPL, Articles 56, 58)
- Only evidence that has been presented, identified and cross-examined in court or has gone through other court inquiry procedures and has been verified can be used as a basis for conviction and sentencing. (CPL, Art.61, Provisions on Several Issues Concerning the Examination and Judgment of Evidence in Death Sentence Cases, Art.4)
- The right of persons who have not reached the age of eighteen at the time the crime is committed, women who are pregnant at the time of adjudication, or over the age of 75 at the time of trial to not be sentenced to death. (Criminal Law, Art.49)
- In the trial of a death penalty case, the defendant's criminal facts must be ascertained based on conclusive and sufficient evidence. (Provisions on Several Issues Concerning the Examination and Judgment of Evidence in Death Sentence Cases, Art.5)
- The right to appeal and right to apply for trial supervision. (CPL, Articles 227, 252)
Rights of Defenders
Since the 2016 trial-centered reform within the criminal procedure system, defense lawyers have been given a more active and independent role in the judicial system.  The role and rights of the defense lawyer include:
- Defense lawyers may provide legal assistance to criminal suspects in the investigation phase, represent them in appeals and accusations, apply for modification of compulsory measures, learn the charges and circumstances from the investigating organs and submit corresponding comments into the files. (CPL, Art.38)
- During legal representation, defense lawyers have the right to preserve the confidentiality of their client's information and relevant circumstances that they learn during the course of performing their professional activities, except for matters related to national or public security or a crime that may endanger others. (CPL, Art. 48)
- Defense lawyers have the right to meet and communicate with the detained suspects within 48 hours of a formal request to the detention centers, and the meeting is protected by confidentiality. (CPL, Art. 39)
- When the case is transferred to prosecution, the defender has the right to review and verify the evidence and other case file materials. (CPL, Art. 40)
- When a defense lawyer finds a piece of evidence that may exonerate or acquit a criminal suspect, the defense lawyer can request a public security organ, people's procuratorate, or the people's court to collect it. (CPL, Arts. 41 and 42)
- Defense lawyers can also conduct investigations and interviews on his or her own. (CPL, Art. 43)
- Throughout the investigation process, defense lawyers can submit written opinions to the investigation organs and include their notes in the case file upon its transfer to the prosecution. (CPL, Art. 161)
- Most importantly, defense lawyers can apply to exclude illegal evidence gathered during the investigation process, such as confessions coerced by force or torture. (CPL, Arts. 56 and 58)
Chinese criminal procedure is divided into three stages, all of which are exclusively separate from each other: the investigation, the prosecution, and the trial stages. The first two stages make up the pre-trial phase.
The investigation stage of criminal cases is conducted by the police, who during this time detain suspects, direct interrogations, gather evidence, and interview witnesses. During the investigation stage, lawyers’ roles are limited, but the Criminal Procedure Law stipulates that lawyers are entitled to provide their clients with legal consultation, lodge petitions and complaints, and apply for bail on their client's behalf. (CPL, Art.38)
Once a criminal case has been filed against an individual, they must make a compelled appearance, or ju chuan(拘传). In this case, the defendant must report to the police station where they may be required to stay for up to 12 hours of questioning. During this time, the investigation authority shall inform the defendant of his right to retain a defender(CPL, Art.34) In the investigation stage, defense lawyers can provide legal assistance including representation on petitions and accusations (for violations of procedural rights), apply for a change in the compulsory measure, enquire to the investigative organs about the relevant circumstances of the case, and provide legal opinions. (CPL, Art.38)
All suspects must be interrogated within 12 hours of the arrest or detention. Before posing any questions to the suspect, the police are required to ask him whether or not he has committed a crime and the circumstances of the situation. Further, the police are required to inform the suspect of the relevant laws that grant lenient treatment if he admits his crime. (CPL, Art.120) Chinese law prohibits torture and evidence that has been violently or illegally obtained from the suspect shall be excluded. Where the collection of physical or documentary evidence does not comply with legally-prescribed procedures and may seriously affect judicial justice, corrections shall be made or reasonable explanations should be given; Where corrections cannot be made or reasonable explanations cannot be given, the evidence shall be excluded. (CPL, Art.56)
After the investigation stage has been completed, the prosecution procedure begins. At this time, the investigators submit to the Procuratorate the evidence that they have gathered for the Procuratorate to decide whether the circumstances of the crime are clear and the evidence reliable and sufficient (CPL, Art.171). In making these determinations, the prosecutor must interrogate the suspect and his or her representative and consult with the victim and his or her representative. If, during this review, the prosecutor discovers that any illegal method was used during investigation, the prosecutor may refer the conduct of the investigator to the appropriate disciplinary authority. If the misconduct rises to the level of a criminal offense, it is referred to the appropriate section of the Procuratorate for investigation (CPL, Art.175). A decision to initiate public prosecution should be made within a month; for cases of a substantive and complicated nature, that deadline can be extended by 15 days (CPL, Art.172).
Chinese law only guarantees lawyers limited rights of discovery at the prosecution stage. Discovery includes the right to all judicial documents in the case, except for the discussion records of the people's procuratorate's procuratorial committee, the discussion records of the collegial panel of the people's court, the adjudication committee, and other materials that cannot be disclosed in accordance with law. 
Lawyers can also conduct independent investigations during the prosecution stage, including collecting evidence from witnesses, and with approval from the prosecutor’s office, gathering and collecting physical evidence and interviewing victims, their families, and witnesses provided by the victim (CPL, Art. 43). However, In practice, it is uncommon for lawyers to exercise this right. This is because of the high risk of facing criminal charges under Art.306 of the Criminal Law for fabricating evidence or inducing witnesses to give false testimony. Also, the fact that there are no specific procedures regulating how lawyers can make applications to the courts or prosecutors for approval of evidence collection, and the evidence collected independently by lawyers are often not accepted by the courts, prevent lawyers from exercising this right in reality.
Plea Leniency System
In 2018, China established the plea leniency system (“Admission of Guilt and Acceptance of Punishment”) to formalize the legal system’s approach to guilty pleas in criminal proceedings, divert criminal cases based on complexity, and conserve judicial resources.  The system stipulates that every defendant must be provided with legal representation to safeguard the voluntariness and accuracy of the plea. The plea leniency system applies to all stages of criminal procedures including investigation, prosecution, and trial. In the investigation stage, "accepting punishment" is represented by a willingness to accept punishment. In the prosecution stage, it is represented by the acceptance of the procuratorate's proposed decision to prosecute or not to prosecute, recognition of the procuratorate's sentencing recommendations, and signing of a recognizance to admit guilt and accept punishment. The defendant should sign the recognizance in the presence of his lawyer or a duty lawyer, and his lawyer or the duty lawyer must also sign on the recognizance to ensure that the defendant voluntarily admits his guilt and accepts the punishment. At the trial stage, it is represented by a confirmation of the voluntary signing of a recognizance before the court and a willingness to accept punishment in the trial stage. Then, whether and how to impose lenient punishment shall be decided in accordance with the law, the nature of the case and the relevant circumstances.
After the procuratorate finds that a crime is constituted, and the evidence is indeed sufficient, it initiates a public prosecution with the court, and the court conducts a trial. All cases must go to trial even if the defendant has confessed to his or her crime. However, where the defendant has pled guilty under the plea leniency system, the case might be diverted to a simpler procedure. There are three trial procedures: regular procedure, summary procedure, and expedited adjudication (also called fast-track sentencing procedure). Summary procedure is available in cases “under the jurisdiction of a basic-level people’s court which satisfies all of the following conditions: (1) The facts of a case are clear and the evidence is concrete and sufficient; (2) The defendant pleads guilty to his/her crime, and has no objection on facts of the crime charged; and (3) The defendant has no objection on the application of the summary procedures,” (see CPL, Art. 208). Expedited adjudication is available in cases “under the jurisdiction of a basic people's court where the defendant may be sentenced to fixed-term imprisonment of not more than three years, provided that the facts of the case are clear, the evidence is definitive and sufficient, and the defendant admits guilt, accepts punishment, and agrees with the application of the fast-track sentencing procedure.” Expedited cases are tried by a sole judge (2018 CPL, Art.222). Although contested cases must be heard by regular trial procedure, cases in which the accused admits guilt and accepts punishment can be heard by any of the three trial procedures depending on the defendant’s choice.
Beginning with the 1996 reforms to the Criminal Procedure Law, and continuing with the revisions of 2012 and 2018, as well as the 2016 pivot to a trial-centered approach, Chinese trials have become more adversarial in nature. These reforms guarantee greater rights to legal representation and include other measures intended to protect the right to a fair trial and to strengthen the role of lawyers. At the trial stage, the lawyer can freely go to the court to get copies of all evidence the prosecutor has placed in the court file. However, despite these improvements, Chinese lawyers still face limitations in what they can do in trials. Lawyers’ roles in Chinese trials are usually limited to asking for more lenient sentences and suggesting mitigating factors to the court. Lawyers rarely dispute anything that the prosecutor alleges against the defendant.
During trials, the court has the right to subpoena witnesses to be questioned and cross-examined by both the prosecution and the defense. In reality though, witnesses rarely appear. Generally, witness statements are merely read aloud in court by the prosecution, depriving the defense of the opportunity of cross-examination.  It is also rare for expert witnesses to appear in-person in court. Prosecutors usually rely on forensic reports and evaluations. Chinese defendants do not have the right to remain silent. At both the pre-trial and trial stage they are required to answer all questions posed to them. Under the Criminal Procedure Law, defendants who either confess to their crimes or truthfully report their actions will be rewarded and treated more leniently by the court.  Thus, lawyers often ask their clients questions that are fairly prosecutorial in nature because they believe that if their clients confess to the crime they will receive a more favorable sentence.
- Xu, L. “The Changing Perspectives of Chinese Law: Socialist Rule of Law, Emerging Case Law and the Belt and Road Initiative.” The Chinese Journal of Global Governance, vol. 5(2), 2019, pp153-175. doi: https://doi.org/10.1163/23525207-12340042
- Craig M. Bradley, Criminal Procedure A Worldwide Study 93 ( 2d ed., Carolina Academic Press 2007)
- Supreme People's Court, Supreme People's Procuratorate, Ministry of Public Security et al. Opinions on Advancing the Reform of Making Criminal Procedure System Trial-Centered, 10 Oct. 2016, ChinaLawTranslate, https://www.chinalawtranslate.com/trial-centered-criminal-procedure-system/
- 佟海晴. “关于依法保障律师执业权利的规定（全文）_中华人民共和国最高人民检察院.” Spp.gov.cn, 2015, www.spp.gov.cn/flfg/gfwj/201509/t20150921_104855.shtml. Accessed 2 Aug. 2023.
- “中国法院网.” Chinacourt.org, 2019, www.chinacourt.org/law/detail/2019/10/id/149982.shtml. Accessed 1 Aug. 2023.
- “证人保护制度的不足与完善-中国法院网.” Chinacourt.org, 2013, www.chinacourt.org/article/detail/2013/09/id/1095093.shtml. Accessed 1 Aug. 2023.
This page contains IBJ's English language materials for legal aid lawyers in China. For Chinese language materials, please go to 
- The PRC reports that it has a total prison population of 1.7 million people as of 2018. 
- As of 2018, for every 100,000 Chinese citizens, the PRC reports that there are 119 prisoners. 
- China’s prison population consists of about 0.8% juvenile prisoners and approximately more than 200,000 pre-trial detainees. 
- The Ministry of Justice holds sentenced prisoners in 683 prisons, including 41 prisons for females and 28 reformatories for juvenile delinquents. 
- China’s pretrial detention rate was approximately 53% in 2020. 
- From 2019 to 2021, procuratorial organs across the country actively applied the Plea Leniency System. The application rate of the Plea Leniency System increased from 49.3% in 2019 to 89.4% in 2021. 
- The rates of non-arrest and non-prosecution in criminal cases were 31.2% and 16.6% respectively, increasing by 9.1% and 8.9% respectively from 2018.