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Does the Punishment Fit the Corruption?

Revised Criminal Law Could Lead to More Consistent Sentencing

After Chen Bokui, the deputy head of a government advisory body in the central province of Hubei, was convicted of taking 2.8 million yuan in bribes by a court in the eastern province of Fujian in April, he received a somewhat stiff sentence—17 years in prison—considering the amount involved and the punishments other officials who have taken less money have received.

His trail was one of many in recent months involving formerly senior officials. In many cases the punishments are lighter than the one Chen was handed even though much more money was involved.

For example, Jiang Jiemin, the former head of the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission, was given a seemingly lenient 16 years behind bars by a court in Hubei province on October 12, for bribery involving over 14 million yuan and a failure to explain another 15 million yuan in his possession.

The same day, a former deputy Party secretary in the southwestern province of Sichuan, Li Chuncheng was tried in another court in Hubei for taking nearly 40 million yuan in bribes and abusing his power. He was handed a fairly light prison term of 13 years.

Court officials said both Jiang and Li were granted leniency because they either helped prosecutors with investigations into other dirty officials, showed deep remorse, or made great efforts to return ill-gotten gains. For instance, The Xianning Intermediate People’s Court in Hubei, where Li stood trial, said he was given a lenient jail term because he cooperated with prosecutors, showed great remorse, and voluntarily confessed his crimes.

Chen, on the other hand, was not granted any leniency because he pleaded not guilty to bribery and abuse of power charges, court documents show.

However, the lighter punishment received by officials who took more in bribes than officials who got longer prison terms is also the result of China’s vague Criminal Law, which grants judges a great amount of leeway when handing down sentences. The handling of the law has become somewhat awkward as an increasing number of corrupt officials appear in court amid an anti-corruption campaign launched by the ruling Communist Party in late 2012, something lawmakers did not anticipate when they wrote the legislation years ago.

Other Considerations

Under the Criminal Law, which was last updated in 1997, a person convicted of taking 100,000 yuan or more in bribes faces anywhere from 10 years to life in prison or even the death penalty.

Ruan Qilin, a professor at China University of Political Science and Law, said courts have been refraining from using capital punishment in cases involving economic crimes, including corruption, amid pressure from abroad. That means judges can only send offenders to jail, but courts still have broad discretion in deciding for how long.

“This means a person who was found to take 100 million yuan might get a less severe punishment than someone guilty of taking hundreds of thousands of yuan,” Ruan said.

Dozens of senior officials have gotten ensnared by the crackdown on graft, and since mid-October at least 14 former senior officials have gone on trial.

Both Jiang and Li were among a coterie of fallen officials linked to former security tsar Zhou Yongkang, who retired late in 2012 as a member of the Party’s powerful Politburo Standing Committee overseeing the country’s police and internal security forces.

Jiang was charged with helping Zhou’s associates secure lucrative contracts for oil and gas development and power plant projects from 2004 to 2008, when he was vice general manager and later general manager of China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC) and head of the oil behemoth’s listed unit.

Li rose through the ranks in Sichuan when Zhou was the province’s Party secretary from 1999 to 2002.

Guo Yongxiang, a former secretary of Zhou’s who later became a former vice governor in Sichuan was sentenced to 20 years in prison by a court in Hubei on October 13 for taking 80 million yuan in bribes and unexplained assets.

Wang Yongchun, former deputy general manager of CNPC, once a powerbase for Zhou, was also sentenced to 20 years in prison by a court in Hubei for taking over 48 million in bribes and holding another 42 million in unexplained assets.

Zhou, 73, was sentenced to life in prison for bribery involving a whopping 130 million yuan as well as abuse of power and leaking state secrets—making him the highest-ranking former official to be prosecuted in the country in decades. He pleaded guilty, but was not granted any leniency.

Zhou’s sentence was lighter, though, considering the amount he took, than prison terms given to other top officials who have gotten in trouble recently, such as the former railroad boss Liu Zhijun, who amassed a much smaller illicit fortune. Liu was handed a suspended death sentence—which usually amounts to life in prison—after he was convicted in a court in the capital in June 2013 of taking bribes totaling more than 60 million yuan.

Liu Tienan, a former deputy director of National Development and Reform Commission, a national economic planning body, also seems to have been the recipient of a harsh punishment. Liu was sentenced to life in prison by a court in the northern province of Hebei in September last year for taking bribes totaling more than 35 million.

And, Wang Suyi, a former top Party official in the northern region of Inner Mongolia, was convicted by a court in Beijing of corruption involving 11 million yuan, yet that sum was enough to get him life in prison.

The government provides little in the way of official explanation for sentences handed down by courts. A judge in the eastern city of Nanjing told the Southern Weekend newspaper that judges need to take more factors into account when sentencing top officials than for rank-and-file officials. He did not explain what he meant, but the implication is the sentences are affected by politics.

A Better Law?

Legal experts hope a revised Criminal Law that comes into effect on November 1 will lead to more consistent sentences. Instead of linking bribery punishments to a fixed amount of ill-gotten gains, the updated legislation divides bribery into three levels: large amounts, great amounts, and extremely great amounts. This would allow the Supreme People’s Court to set a range of years in jail for each category.

The revised law also breaks the life in prison sentence into two: a term that cannot be reviewed and one that can be reduced.

A prosecutor in Beijing told Southern Weekend that both the highest court and the top prosecutor’s office are working on a legal interpretation that would link bribery punishments to the amounts involved. Said the prosecutor: “Otherwise, there is no way of enforcing the law in court.”