Beijing Chaoyang District Peoples Court. Image credit:

After Minister of Justice Wu Aiying took up her position in 2005, I was barred from visiting Chinese prisons. By 2005 I had been shown around prisons in Beijing, Hebei, Tianjin, Shanghai, Fujian, and Guangdong – nine prisons in all.

Wu Aiying was expelled from the Communist Party for corruption in 2017. Her ceaseless efforts to dismantle my dialogue with the ministry came to a head when a colleague and I were invited to visit Yichang Municipality in Hubei Province in 2007 to make presentations on the American justice system to a large audience of provincial justice officials. We had been promised a prison visit, but after finishing our presentations our hosts confirmed that we would not after all be allowed to visit the prison, on the instruction of the Ministry of Justice in Beijing. We needed to get out of town quickly.

In early 2006, I shifted my attention from visiting prisons to attending criminal trials. In January I wrote to the Supreme People’s Court in Beijing, requesting permission to attend a trial of either endangering state security or disturbing the social order, specifically a “mass incident,” when I visited Beijing the following month. This was a bold request. Although most trials are supposed to be open to the public, trials of endangering state security are usually closed. Trials of disturbing the social order involving dissidents are often closed to outsiders. In general foreigners, other than consular representatives, who are, for the most part, allowed to attend trails of their citizens, rarely get permission to attend trials.

To my surprise, I was told that I could attend a disturbing the social order trial, as the guest of the Beijing High Court, when I visited Beijing the following month. The trial would take place at the Chaoyang District Court, one of the country’s busiest; it had heard 50,000 criminal cases in 2005.

At 9 AM on February 17, 2006, my driver and I arrived at the Chaoyang District Court. I was met by the Chief Judge of the Chaoyang Court’s Criminal Division, the Director of the Court’s General Office, and the Director of the High Court’s Foreign Affairs Office. My driver told me that I was being given great face.

I was ushered into a polyurethane wood-paneled court room where photographers and cameramen were waiting to film my attendance. Other than court officials and police officers, I was the only other person in the room.

Seated at the front of the court was an appropriately robed collegiate panel consisting of two judges and a people’s assessor. In front of them was the court recorder. The defense team sat to my right while the prosecutors sat to my left. The defendant, Mr. Dong, was led into the courtroom in shackles. He stood in a box before the judges, flanked by two sturdy policemen.

Mr. Dong was accused of creating a disturbance, a violation of Article 293 of the Criminal Law, and a crime of disturbing the social order. In October 2005, Mr. Dong had been drinking in a bar. After a bit too much bai jiu, a fiery Chinese liquor, he stumbled into the street, where he began fights with passersby. The police showed up and detained him, somewhat worse for the wear.

I asked a court official seated next to me if this was considered a “mass incident.” He replied yes, “a small-scale mass incident.”

Mr. Dong had already served a two-year sentence for fighting, which meant that as a recidivist he could expect a harsh sentence. He pleaded guilty at this trial. The judges, in a show of leniency, noted his deep remorse and decided to give him a second chance, a suspended sentence. Mr. Dong thanked the court and was led away.

The whole proceeding had taken just 30 minutes. After my visit to the court room I was taken to see the room where copies of judgments are held. I asked to take a look at a few randomly selected judgments, but my request was denied.

On the way back to the car we passed through the court’s atrium. Overhead was a glass ceiling. I was told that this ceiling symbolized the court’s commitment to transparency.

After the trial and before returning to Hong Kong on February 18, 2006, I was hosted to lunch by Swedish Ambassador Borje Ljunggren and dinner by American Ambassador Clark Randt. I also met with the Red Cross and the Swiss Embassy.

A Case of Armed Robbery

I took the afternoon train to Guangzhou from Hong Kong on February 19. I was met at the train station by a professor and his junior colleague who both worked for a research association. They drove me to the White Swan Hotel on Shamian Island, close to the American consulate. We went to dinner at the hotel’s Chinese restaurant.

Guangzhou Intermediate Court Image: Xinhua

Over dinner I related my experience at the Chaoyang District Court. I told my friends that I felt that the trial I had attended was choreographed and intended to impress me with how compassionate the judges were. To my surprise I was asked if I’d like to attend a trial in Guangzhou. “We are far more open here. Foreigners can attend trials without prior approval,” I was told. We agreed to try to attend a trial at the Guangzhou Intermediate Court the next day.

We arrived at the court by taxi on the morning of February 20. The court was housed in a large, multi-story building, a hive of 80 court rooms. The ground floor was teeming with family members and others intending to attend trials, as well as judges and bailiffs. After passing through the security check, I went to an unimpressive wooden desk and registered to attend a trial of armed robbery, a capital offense. I presented my passport and was given a pass. Intermediate courts in China are the courts of first instance of trials for crimes that carry the death sentence, so we chose a death penalty trial.

My friend and I went to Courtroom Two on the fourth floor, where the trial was taking place, Judge Jiang Jianxiong presiding. The defendant, 19-year-old Huang Changwei was brought into the courtroom, shackled and accompanied by two blue-suited bailiffs. He stood in the dock shivering with fear. He was flanked by two cops. I thought of my own children. My oldest son was the same age as Huang Changwei, a migrant from a poor family in rural Guangdong. The judge, spying me out of the corner of his eye, asked young Mr. Huang if he needed some time to compose himself.

Mr. Huang was accused of killing his girlfriend, whom he had met on the Internet, in June 2005. The couple had rented a hotel room to negotiate a “breakup fee,” the amount the young woman was to receive for agreeing to separate. She demanded RMB 10,000. The boyfriend refused to pay anything and instead demanded that the girl return the cellphone he had given her. She refused, and when he tried to grab it a struggle ensued. During the fight he grabbed a fruit knife and stabbed her to death, after which he fled the scene, in possession of the cellphone. It was a simple matter for the police to track him down and detain him.

The court room was crowded. In addition to court officials, lawyers, and police, there were people like me (I was the only foreigner) who simply wanted to watch the proceedings. There was a group of relatives of the deceased girl who were there to demand justice. They were armed with a document that apparently allowed them to calculate the amount of compensation to the family that the young man should pay them for killing the girl.

The defendant’s lawyer stated that his client was too poor to pay a large compensation. At this point, the judge moved to adjourn the trial in order that he consider amending the charge to intentional murder. The defendant’s lawyer exclaimed: “Surely your honor wouldn’t sentence my client to death simply because he can’t afford to pay compensation.”

After the trial was adjourned, I went up to the judge and asked him if he cared to join me for a cup of tea and a cigarette. We agreed to do so in a small room off the hallway outside the court. We sat down on a couch to discuss the case. I found myself in the unlikely role of advocating for someone facing the death penalty in a Chinese court of law.

I said that Mr. Huang was a young man (he was 18 years old at the time of the crime) and took the position that this was a crime of passion committed by an immature person. There was no evidence of premeditation. At most this would be second-degree murder in the United States, maybe manslaughter. No way, I opined, could the crime justify his execution.

Judge Jiang seemed to take what I said on board. After finishing the tea and cigarette, I asked if he’d take a picture with me. He agreed and we reentered the courtroom where compensation negotiations between parties were still underway. He shooed them away, and we took a picture together, he in his splendid robes.

Judge Jiang did not amend the charge to intentional murder, keeping it as intentional robbery, a capital crime.

John Kamm with Judge Zhang Jianxiong of the Guangzhou Intermediate People’s Court, February 2006


On April 25, 2006 the Guangzhou Intermediate People’s Court sentenced Huang Changwei to death. He was ordered to compensate the girl’s family to the tune of RMB 292,689, the sum total of his assets. Huang appealed the judgment to the Guangdong High Court.

I wrote a letter to Judge Jiang which I asked my Guangzhou friend to deliver. I asked the judge to pass along my comments on the case to the High Court. On November 28, 2006 the High Court amended the sentence to death with two-year reprieve, reasoning that he had just turned 18 (the youngest age at which someone can be executed for a crime committed at or after the age of 18) not long before he committed the crime. He deserved a second chance. My friend wrote me that it was virtually certain that the sentence would be commuted to life in prison, which is what happened on August 8, 2009.

Huang turned out to be a very well-behaved prisoner. His life sentence was reduced to 19 years on July 28, 2011 and further reduced by 17 months on December 31, 2013. He was given an eight-month sentence reduction on May 6, 2016 and a five-month reduction in 2018. After the last reduction this sentence is set to expire on June 27, 2028, 23 years after the death at his hands of his girlfriend.