The Demise of China’s Modest Judicial ‘Transparency’

China is now removing data on jailed or missing dissidents from its judicial system's database
December 15, 2021 Updated: December 15, 2021


China’s judicial system is busy deleting and removing data on persecution—scrubbing them from its database—which reverses the only positive development for China’s judiciary in years.

One of the few highlights within the Chinese judicial system, or possibly the only one, has been a slow—yet noticeable—increase in “transparency.” The main part of this has been the establishment of a database, called China Judgments Online, by the Supreme Court in July 2013. The database is supposed to publish verdicts from criminal trials.

The database never included more than roughly half of verdicts, and the system allowed police, prosecutors, courts, and sometimes victims to request not to have their verdicts included—and, as a rule, it never published verdicts related to national security. Despite all this, the database provided researchers, including those at Safeguard Defenders, with invaluable data.

Safeguard Defenders, for example, has been able to prove, using Beijing’s own data, that the Chinese state is committing a crime against humanity on two or more counts in its use of the RSDL (residential surveillance at a designated location) system for secretly jailing people. Others have been able to perform data analysis on freedom of information crimes and find patterns in Chinese law enforcement practices.

The RSDL system allows police to grab anyone off the streets without a court order, and place the victim at secret locations and hold him/her incommunicado for up to half a year. It has been used extensively to target lawyers, journalists, and civil society actors. Up until recently, Safeguard Defenders has been able to expose more information about this secretive system, thanks to the database.

After an internet user exposed a verdict relating to a freedom of information crime back in 2020, which gained widespread attention, China’s judicial system was spurred into action and started mass wiping similar cases from its database. Thousands of cases, or possibly far more, disappeared.

Not long after teenage dissident Wang Jingyu was detained in Dubai and threatened to be deported back to China due to his online comments about the deadly China-India border clash in June 2020, Safeguard Defenders noticed that many verdicts related to Twitter had been removed from the database. Before this incident, it seems that further actions have been taken in “cleaning” (removing) cases related to social media platforms such as Twitter. Not only did Chinese authorities stop publishing new verdicts related to these topics, but they have started taking down prior ones.

This summer, an extensive research project on the use of RSDL system led to an evidence submission to relevant United Nations organs. Upon checking the data to see how RSDL use had since progressed (after increasing in known use by 190 percent between 2019 and 2020), it became clear that the Chinese regime is now engaged in taking down troves of verdicts that mention RSDL.

In June, there were 27,208 verdicts related to RSDL, and by late November, one could expect that number to have increased by 3,000 to 5,000. Safeguard Defenders was very surprised when it saw that there were only 24,340 verdicts found, meaning that there are now almost 3,000 less verdicts than half a year ago, with thousands of cases disappearing and going missing.

A system designed to hide people at secret locations is now itself disappearing at a rapid pace from the regime’s public database tracking its use. A form of double disappearance.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised. Without anyone paying much attention, China has been revisiting the only other positive development—the use of freedom of information requests—and started circumscribing what information government departments need to release, and curtailing the ability of citizens to request the release of data. China’s judiciary system, after some very modest positive developments, is again sinking further into a black hole.

How do you trust a judiciary that cannot even publicize its own actions?

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Peter Dahlin
Peter Dahlin is the founder of the NGO Safeguard Defenders and the co-founder of the Beijing-based Chinese NGO China Action (2007–2016). He is the author of “Trial By Media,” and contributor to “The People’s Republic of the Disappeared.” He lived in Beijing from 2007, until detained and placed in a secret jail in 2016, subsequently deported and banned. Prior to living in China, he worked for the Swedish government with gender equality issues, and now lives in Madrid, Spain.