Sensitive information is fickle, its sources changeable, its disaggregation erratic. A single book never tells the whole story but offers fragments that can be collected into portraits of the disappeared. Shanghai Courts: 30 Years of Model Cases (上海法院30年经典案例) is three books of more than 350 cases handled from 1978 to 2008; it holds two instances of political crime.

Motivating Acquittal

In 1978 Zhang Guanyou (章关友) sent anonymous letters to Shanghai officials because his son had been sentenced to reeducation through labor. Zhang’s letters used “vicious” language, like “the Gang of Four is good,” to “attack the Party and the socialist system.” With the letters as evidence, the Huangpu District People’s Court sentenced Zhang to five years’ imprisonment for “carrying out counterrevolutionary propaganda and creating and spreading rumors.” Zhang appealed, and in its review of the case, the Shanghai Intermediate People’s Court acquitted. It ruled that Zhang did not possess a clear counterrevolutionary motive.

The importance of motive was codified in the 1979 Criminal Law, one year after Zhang’s acquittal, as a means to stem the abuse of counterrevolutionary crime that typified the Gang of Four era. But making motive a criteria for guilt was not enough to stop political persecution. Zhang was one of 668 individuals tried and 36 individuals acquitted for counterrevolution in Shanghai between 1977 and 1990, according to municipal data that return an acquittal rate of 5.4 percent.

Today acquittals are even rarer. Nationwide, individuals tried for endangering state security (ESS), which since 1997 has encompassed many formerly “counterrevolutionary” crimes, had an acquittal rate of 0.3 percent in 2002 and 1.2 percent in 2004, the only years for which national data is available. In those years, about 54 percent of individuals punished for ESS crimes were sentenced to death, death with reprieve, or imprisonment of five years to life. (China’s acquittal rate for criminal cases fell annually to reach 0.1 percent in 2010 from 0.7 percent in 2002. By comparison, the criminal acquittal rate is around 17 percent in the US and less than one percent in Japan.)

Covering 1980 to present, Dui Hua’s political prisoner database only includes one officially confirmed acquittal for counterrevolutionary or ESS prisoners. Guo Yaotang (郭耀唐), a villager in Henan Province, was prosecuted in 1993 for counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement. He allegedly erected a monument and gathered a crowd to commemorate his grandfather, who was labeled a counterrevolutionary leader in the 1950s. Both the Sanmenxia Intermediate People’s Court and the Henan High People’s Court found Guo not guilty, also on the grounds that he lacked counterrevolutionary motive.

The Long Arm of Counterrevolution

In a widely publicized incident in 1982, five individuals—Sun Yunping (孙云平)Yang Feng (杨锋)Gao Keli (高克力)Xie Zhimin (谢智敏), and Wei Xueli (魏学利)—reportedly hijacked a plane flying from Xi’an to Shanghai. They allegedly caused explosions in the cabin, injured passengers, shouted counterrevolutionary slogans, and threatened to kill communists. While pleading guilty to causing explosions, the defendants denied counterrevolutionary motives. Regardless, the Shanghai Intermediate People’s Court sentenced them to death for counterrevolutionary hijacking, calling their actions part of a premeditated plot to defect to an unidentified enemy, suggested in some sources to be Taiwan. The Shanghai High People’s Court upheld the verdict and after review by the Supreme People’s Court (SPC), all five were executed in August 1982. (One year later the SPC would lose the power of death penalty review for all crimes except counterrevolution.)

The 1979 Criminal Law is a milestone in China’s legal history, but by using motive to define a counterrevolutionary act, it raised problems of subjectivity and standards of proof that eventually made the law a target for reform. In 1997 counterrevolution was removed from the Criminal Law and largely replaced with crimes of endangering state security. But the legacy of political persecution continues.

Fourteen years after counterrevolution was removed from the Criminal Law, more than 60 individuals sentenced for counterrevolutionary crimes are still known or believed to be in jail, according to Dui Hua research. Among them is Jiang Cunde (蒋存德), sentenced to life imprisonment in 1987 and now one of the longest-serving “counterrevolutionaries.” Jiang was found guilty of conspiring to purchase weapons to hijack a plane to Taiwan; he is also known for his labor and human rights activism inspired by Polish independent trade union Solidarity. Official sources say that Jiang was released on medical parole in 1993 but sent back to prison in 1999 for participating in demonstrations. His sentence was commuted to 20 years’ imprisonment in 2004, meaning Jiang is to serve 13 more years for a crime that no longer exists.