This year, the People’s Republic of China turns 60—a particularly significant milestone in Chinese tradition. Following the ancient counting system of “heavenly stems” and “earthly branches,” 60 represents a full cycle, an occasion to reflect on past accomplishments, and an auspicious moment to embark on fresh endeavors. Whereas last year’s Olympic celebrations were an opportunity for the Chinese government to show its best face to the international community, October 1 is in many ways an opportunity for the government to show its best face to the Chinese people.

The government has already announced that the military parade marking National Day will be the biggest in the country’s history. President Hu Jintao will review the parade—his first since assuming power—and make an important speech. A spectacular space feat—like the country’s first rendezvous in orbit of two spacecraft—might be attempted. If the economic stimulus plan has its desired effect, shoppers will fill the stores, stock markets will be up, and optimism will be running high.

Chinese emperors routinely celebrated their 60th birthdays with major acts of benevolence to the general population, such as opening up new routes to coveted spots in the imperial bureaucracy or reducing the tax burden on the country’s peasants. Another common way for a ruler to display his generosity and compassion to his subjects was to issue special pardons for convicted criminals. Pardons on special occasions are common in many countries around the world. Neighbors such as Vietnam and North and South Korea issued pardons on the occasion of their 60th anniversaries of liberation in 2005, and the King of Thailand granted pardons in 2007 to 25,000 prisoners on the 60th anniversary of his accession to the throne. It is thus no surprise that as the People Republic of China’s 60th birthday approaches, people inside and outside of China are calling on the government to make a special pardon of long-serving prisoners part of the major celebration expected this year.

The 1959 Special Pardon

Articles 67 and 80 of China’s constitution provide the mechanism to issue special pardons, giving authority over passage and issuance of pardons to the National People’s Congress Standing Committee and head of state, respectively. Since 1949, China has issued seven pardons, but the first pardon in 1959 is of greatest relevance since it was explicitly ordered as part of the celebrations for the country’s 10th anniversary. That year, several dozen “war criminals” were released from prison, but by far the largest group of pardon beneficiaries was the estimated 70,000 “counterrevolutionaries” and ordinary prisoners who had already served significant portions of their sentences and demonstrated good behavior.

Prisoners serving life sentences and prisoners sentenced to death with two-year reprieve could also have their sentences commuted to fixed terms. If the 1959 pardon were scaled to today’s prison population, the number of prisoners affected would exceed 80,000. (see 1959 Special Pardon Encouraged Prisoners to Reform)

Though six more special pardons have been issued since that first celebratory pardon in 1959, none have been issued since 1975. However, a number of influential Chinese recently have revived the idea as one worthy of consideration. In late 2007, outgoing Supreme People’s Court President Xiao Yang linked issuance of special pardons to the current policy goals of China, calling such pardons an “important manifestation of progress towards a civilized society,” and stating that “fully demonstrating the role of the pardon system certainly will have an enormously positive impact toward creating a harmonious and stable social environment and enhancing the internal unity of the people.”

New Pardon Proposals Voiced

In December 2007, Liu Renwen, a researcher at the Institute of Law at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, published an article in the influential Guangzhou newspaper Southern Weekend entitled, “Can 2008 Become China’s Year of the Special Pardon?” In it, Liu called for the release of prisoners “who have truly repented,” particularly those who were punished especially severely during China’s periodic “strike hard” anti-crime campaigns or those convicted of former crimes such as “profiteering” (or “counterrevolution” or “hooliganism”) that have since been removed from the criminal code. (See Dui Hua’s Human Rights Journal posting from May 16, 2008 for the foundation’s commentary on and translation of Liu’s article.)

Last March, Wu Gang, a delegate to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference from Chongqing, surprised his fellow delegates with a formal proposal to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the PRC with a pardon of nine categories of prisoners, including all prisoners over the age of 75, those under the age of 18, and the disabled. Female prisoners could be pardoned after serving half of their terms. Wu also suggested that prisoners who had not benefited from changes in the criminal law be freed, a group that would include counterrevolutionaries.

Though different in substance, the proposals made by Liu and Wu share common elements that recall the spirit of the 1959 pardon. First, their pardon proposals do not target individual prisoners but rather seek to benefit larger groups. Second, the general principle for eligibility remains unchanged: showing good behavior, having already served substantial prison time, and no longer posing a threat to society. Both proposals see the exercise of constitutional pardon authority as a valuable tool to achieve fairness in a criminal justice system that does not always operate according to consistent policies. Finally, each appeals to traditional ethics, which see moral acts by the government as important guides to the behavior expected of society at large.

The Debate Unfolds

These proposals have touched off a lively debate. While some see the value of a special pardon to foster a harmonious society, others worry about sending the wrong signal while crime is on the rise. A few have taken a more cautious approach, suggesting that China should first enact a Special Pardon Law—even though existing constitutional provisions ensure that the absence of such a law is not an impediment to the issuance of a 60th anniversary pardon.

Perhaps the most significant response to the pardon proposals has come from within China’s prisons themselves. A prisoner in Guangdong serving a sentence for “endangering state security” recalls that Liu Renwen’s proposal for an Olympic pardon circulated widely among inmates and that it gave him and other prisoners great encouragement. Prisoners and their families naturally support the idea of a special pardon, but prison personnel and their bosses charged with cutting costs also form an unexpected constituency that recognizes that a reduction of the prison population on the order of 5 percent could have major practical benefits for China’s economic health. The high cost of maintaining a large prison system is not a minor consideration as China faces economic uncertainties brought on by the global financial crisis.

Such rationale may partly lie behind paroles in earthquake-ravaged Sichuan. A Chinese newspaper recently revealed that more than 1,000 prisoners categorized as “elderly, infirm, or disabled” had been paroled over the past half-year from prisons in the province, where more paroles are likely to occur this year (see Dui Hua’s Human Rights Journal for details). In the face of economic straits, the expansion in the use of parole and other forms of early release appears to indicate a growing willingness to release certain groups of prisoners, notably individuals who can receive better care with their families and who are unlikely to pose a threat to society.

To be sure, China in 2009 is different from China in 1959, and its prison population has changed as well. There are relatively few political prisoners in China today, but a special pardon could result in the release of several, including long-serving counterrevolutionaries such as the Mongolian dissident Hada and Shanghai labor leader Jiang Cunde, as well as most if not all of the fifty or so remaining prisoners serving sentences for their involvement in the spring 1989 protests. Putting to rest the ghosts of Tiananmen by means of a 60th anniversary special pardon would go a long way toward building a harmonious society and likely be welcomed by the incoming Obama administration and other governments that have human rights dialogues with China. A special pardon would also solidify Hu Jintao’s legacy as a compassionate and forward-looking leader, one who embodies the building of a harmonious China in practice as well as in rhetoric.

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