China operated the largest data base of legal decisions in the world. Until it realized it offered ammunition to critics—including Bitter Winter.
by Yang Feng
You would rarely find praise of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Bitter Winter, but we acknowledge they did something very useful for scholars and also for our magazine, when they decided to digitalize and publish on the web millions of court decisions. Eighty millions of court cases may seem an enormous figure. In fact, they are only a fraction of the decisions rendered by courts in China, an immense country where the law is invasive, and being sued or prosecuted is a common occurrence.
But for scholars and observers being able to work on a data base including eighty million decisions was a unique opportunity. We at Bitter Winter enjoyed the free ride, and shopped often for decisions punishing human rights activists or members of “illegal” religions.
Sadly, after eight years of existence, China Judgements Online is no longer growing. It is shrinking. The 100th anniversary of the CCP approaches, and every Chinese is supposed to participate in the “Studying the Party History Campaign,” and to have learned its first commandment, that history is not about “truth” but about promoting the CCP. Whatever puts the CCP in a bad light should be erased from history, including recent history.
Finally, somebody at some level of the CCP’s intricate bureaucracy saw the light, and understood how many critics throughout the world also use China Judgements Online, including yours truly at Bitter Winter. We had noticed something strange, but had initially attributed it to the fact that the data base is not exactly user-friendly, and has never worked perfectly.
However, a smart data base user blew the whistle in a Reddit group, and claimed that 100% (all) of the Supreme Court’s death penalty review decisions have been deleted, as well as more than 90% of lower court decisions involving the death penalty. It is well-known that China is, by far, the country issuing the highest number of death sentences in the world, and it maintains the world record for executions as well. However, data on death penalties in China cannot be computed in the international death penalty statistics because all information on the subject is regarded as a state secret by the CCP. Even if not complete, China Judgements Online might have revealed some of the secret information. Until last week.
The Reddit user also noted that many other documents were being deleted at great speed in anticipation of the CCP’s 100th anniversary celebrations. We cannot come out with exact statistics, but some believe that more than half of the criminal cases in the data base have been deleted.
Including many about religious liberty, that is. In 2019, three authors who also write for Bitter Winter, Massimo Introvigne, James T. Richardson and Rosita Šorytė, published in a scholarly journal a study of 200 cases of members of a single religious movement banned as a xie jiao, The Church of Almighty God, sentenced by Chinese courts between January 2018 and July 2019. This study was unimpeachable precisely because no decision had been supplied by The Church of Almighty God’s lawyers or members. All came from China Judgements Online. The study was crucial to prove that common members, not only leaders, of religious movements banned as xie jiao go to jail in China, and that Article 300 of the Chinese Criminal Code, which punishes “using a xie jiao,” is interpreted by Chinese courts by regarding as illegal and criminal activities such as attending illegal worship meetings, proselyting among family members and co-workers, and even keeping at home a certain number of religious books and magazines published by a xie jiao.
Perhaps the authors could not believe their good luck, and suspected the decisions will one day disappear. This is probably why they saved the screenshots of all the decisions mentioned in their study that were uploaded by CESNUR, which is also the parent organization of Bitter Winter, in a 506-page compilation that is still available online.
Unfortunately, not everybody was so prescient. Several decisions punishing COVID-19 whistleblowers have already disappeared, and reconstructing the legal history of the CCP’s cover-up on the virus will become more difficult. The same applies to other human rights issues. Transparency and honesty are not something the CCP is interested in. We should remember it when the media will show us the false rhetoric and forced enthusiasm of the July 1 CCP anniversary celebrations.