On September 17, 1959, the Standing Committee of the Second National People’s Congress, acting on a recommendation of China’s Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong, issued a decision calling for a special pardon of prisoners to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China and other accomplishments of the country since its establishment in 1949.

That same day, China’s head of state, Liu Shaoqi, issued an order for the Supreme People’s Court and provincial high people’s courts to carry out the decision. Under China’s constitution, the power to make decisions about pardons rests with the executive committee of China’s highest legislature, while the head of state is granted the power to issue pardons. Other than these constitutional provisions, there is no legislative framework governing the issue of pardons in China.

The 1959 pardon was designed to release or provide sentence reductions to prisoners who had demonstrated “genuine reform.” Before being considered for release, prisoners also had to have served a significant portion of their sentence—ranging from one-third for ordinary criminals serving five years or fewer to two-thirds for counterrevolutionaries sentenced to more than five years. Individuals whose death sentence had been suspended for two years or who had been sentenced to life in prison could be considered for commutation to fixed-term sentences.

Many who are aware of pardons in modern Chinese history believe that pardons were given only to “war criminals” who served in the previous Nationalist government under Chiang Kai-Shek or in the puppet Manchukuo government supported by the Japanese. This, however, fails to appreciate the scope and significance of the 1959 pardon, which was the only one issued to commemorate a major celebration. In addition to benefiting war criminals and former Nationalist officials, the 1959 pardon released tens of thousands of “counterrevolutionaries” and ordinary criminals as well.

Following the announcement of the 1959 pardon, provincial courts established special commissions of officials and party cadres to oversee the process of carrying out the order. Guidelines appear to have been issued—probably within the party organization—intended to limit the number of pardon beneficiaries to five percent of the total prison population. Prisons were told to release a greater proportion of ordinary criminals than counterrevolutionaries and release more minor offenders than serious offenders. In Sichuan, at least, prisons were also instructed to release fewer prisoners in “minority areas” than in “Han areas.” (Sichuan’s sizeable Tibetan population had been particularly restive in previous years, and the Chinese army had just quelled a popular uprising in Tibet earlier in the year.)

In most parts of China, the 1959 pardon appears to have been carried out in three phases and was generally wrapped up by the end of the year. It is unclear how many prisoners benefited from the pardon, but based on incomplete provincial data, Dui Hua estimates the total to be roughly 70,000. Anecdotal information indicates that the great majority of those released did not re-offend, and the pardon has been credited with having a positive impact on the willingness to reform of those who remained imprisoned.