Tuesday, December 30, 2014

"How do you say 'Glasnost' in Chinese?" Opening a Closed Door on Military Justice in the PRC

The high-profile investigation and prosecution of three senior Chinese military officials for alleged corruption offences has focused unprecedented public attention in China on the Military Court of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. But will the trials themselves be open to the public?

Gu Junshan and Yang Jinshan both held the rank of Lieutenant General, and now face a court martial on allegations related to their conduct in their official positions. Gu was deputy head of the General Logistics Department of the PLA until his detention under the disciplinary processes of the Communist Party in early 2012. He was indicted before a military court at the end of March of 2014 on charges of embezzlement as well as offering and accepting bribes. Yang served as deputy Commander of the Chengdu Military Region until he was arrested in July of 2014. He was expelled from the Communist Party in October 2014 amid allegations of bribery and corruption involving the sale of military positions.

But the most senior of the three is General Xu Caihou who rose to the position of vice chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission where he served until 2012. Although retired from active service he is still under the jurisdiction of the military courts. In June of 2014 he was expelled from the Communist Party, and in October he was charged with bribery “in extremely large amounts”.

As Susan Finder has explained on this blog, the judicial reform campaign under the 3rd and 4th plenums of the 18th Party Congress extends to the area of Chinese military law, and improved transparency is on the agenda. The communiqué from the 4th plenum held in October of 2014 included this passage:
Build an open, dynamic, transparent, and convenient sunshine judicial mechanism; move forward with open trials, open prosecutorial work, open police work, and open prison work; promptly publish law enforcement and judicial basis, procedures, processes, results, and effective legal documents according to the law; and put an end to secretive work.”
It is not clear though that Chinese authorities equate “open” trials with trials that are held in public. Art. 11 of the Criminal Procedure Law provides that normally all the people’s courts shall adjudicate cases in public (gongkai jinxing). But in practice judicial proceedings in China take place behind closed doors, despite the brave claim in a 2012 White Paper on Judicial Reform that “China’s judicial organs…are comprehensively promoting judicial openness, so as to ensure that judicial power is exercised openly, fairly and impartially, under the supervision of all the people”. The Criminal Procedure Law applies at courts martial, but it is extremely rare for anyone other than military officials to be present at a Chinese court martial.

The PLA Military Court itself is veiled in secrecy. The state Constitution of 1982 avows the existence of military courts and prosecutors, but there is no statute establishing the existing 3-level hierarchy of the Chinese military courts, or setting out their jurisdiction. While the decisions of other Chinese courts are more and more finding their way onto the internet, the PLA Military Court does not have a web-site, or even a publicly avowed address. The Court is believed to hold hearings near a detention facility operated by the PLA General Political Department in a northern suburb of Beijing.

Some Chinese commentators have called for open military trials for senior officers charged with corruption offences, and argue that the well-publicized trial of Bo Xilai demonstrates that the Chinese judicial system can operate with much more transparency. Others fear that an open trial and a concomitant public display of the extent of military corruption will irreparably damage the reputation of the PLA.

The lapse of time since the indictment of Gu suggests though that the decision has already been taken to conduct Gu’s trial in the conventional recondite way, and the next thing we hear may well be an official announcement that the trial and sentencing of Gu have already taken place.


  1. Welcome aboard to our newest contributor, Judge (ret) Peter Lamont of Canada.

  2. Welcome aboard Peter!
    It seems unlikely that the trials will be conducted in public, as it is considered that too many secrets are involved. Also, I have read a report that Xu Caihou is not well enough to stand trial.

    1. Thanks for the welcome, Susan. After initial reports that the parlous state of his health would exempt him from investigation, Xu was apparently arrested mid-March of 2014 and taken from his hospital bed where he was being treated for bladder cancer. I wonder if this volte-face is a good example of factional politics at the senior levels of the CPC at work. In any event, a period under shuanggui cannot be good for one's health.


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