Presented by Benjamin Liebman, the Robert L. Lieff Professor of Law and director of the Center for Chinese Legal Studies at the Columbia School of Law. His current research focuses on Chinese tort law, Chinese criminal procedure, the impact of popular opinion and populism on the Chinese legal system, and the evolution of China’s courts and legal profession.
This lecture examines one-year of publicly available criminal judgments from one basic-level rural county court and one intermediate court in Henan Province in order to better understand trends in routine criminal adjudication in China. Professor Liebman presents an account of ordinary criminal justice in China that is both familiar and striking: a system that treats serious crimes, in particular those affecting state interests, harshly while at the same time acting leniently in routine cases. Most significantly, examination of more than five hundred court decisions shows the vital role that settlement plays in criminal cases in China today. Defendants who agree to compensate their victims receive strikingly lighter sentences than those who do not. Likewise, settlement plays a role in resolving even serious crimes, at times appearing to make the difference between life and death for criminal defendants. This account of ordinary cases in China contrasts with most western accounts of the Chinese criminal justice system, which focus on sensational cases of injustice and the prevalence of harsh punishments.