A vast online database of Chinese court rulings has just shrunk by over 9%. Though China Judgments Online (中国裁判文书网), launched in 2014 by the Supreme People’s Court, has always been translucent at best—it is supposed to exclude death penalty and divorce cases, for example—it has provided the public with access to over 119 million court cases as of this April. Echo Xie at the South China Morning Post reports that 11 million of those records are now inaccessible, which China Judgements Online claims is because the files are “being migrated” for “technical reasons”:
“I am very concerned about this,” said Wang Fei, a Beijing-based lawyer. “Making the judgments available online was the best reform achievement of the Chinese judiciary in recent years and this is very important for safeguarding justice.”
In addition, Wang said some video recordings of trial proceedings which had previously been published on China Trials Online – a separate website also run by the Supreme People’s Court – were no longer available as of the beginning of this month.
“It will have a big impact on our work if these judgments aren’t available any more. The database is an important source for our research – the information it provided is comprehensive and authoritative,” Wang said. “I hope the ‘migration’ is just a technical issue,” he added.
The Supreme People’s Court did not respond to phone calls and faxed requests for comment on Friday. [Source]
At the Los Angeles Times, Alice Su reports that the missing documents have come to light thanks to the work of a digital activist on Twitter:
The deletions were first noticed by a Chinese activist with the Twitter handle @SpeechFreedomCN, who has been keeping an archive of speech crime cases. He has tracked more than 2,040 cases, dating to 2013, based on official documentation in China Judgments Online or public security bureaus’ reports on the social media apps Weibo and WeChat.
There are more than 600 cases of punishment related to speech about COVID-19. Most are fines, “education and warning,” or detention for up to two weeks for posting online messages about the coronavirus or the government response.
They include the case of Li Wenliang, the young doctor who died of the virus after authorities reprimanded him for warning others about the outbreak, but also hundreds of lesser-known ones: a Qinghai man given 10 months of jail for tweets criticizing China’s COVID response; a Beijinger jailed six months for warning classmates in a WeChat group about a COVID case; a popular Weibo blogger in Hebei province given six months of prison for compiling stories of Wuhan residents’ suffering during lockdown. [Source]
On Monday, @SpeechFreedomCN tweeted a timeline of their sleuthing on China Judgements Online, noticing that cases seem to disappear after they have brought them to light. CDT has translated the full text of this tweet, which was posted as an image:
On January 4, 2020, I posted the case of Wang Qiang, an internet user in Wuhan who received a prison sentence for criticizing the CCP on Twitter. The verdict was published on China Judgements Online. Perhaps because the media picked up the story, many people visited the site to look up the original court opinion, which led to it being taken offline shortly afterwards.
On January 16, I posted the case of someone surnamed Li, an internet user in Jincheng, Shanxi Province, who received a prison sentence for posting “negative speech implicating Xi [Jingping]” on Twitter and WeChat. The judgement was taken offline shortly afterwards.
On January 22, I posted the case of Luo Daiqing, a Chinese student who criticized Xi Jinping while studying in America and received a prison sentence upon returning to China. The judgement was taken offline shortly afterwards for the same reason [as mentioned above];
On February 13, I posted the case of Yang Tihe, a democracy activist from Sichuan Province who was detained for dissident speech. The judgement was taken offline shortly afterwards;
That was when I realized that China Judgements Online was deleting entries. Since then, whenever I have come across a case that should be made public, I download it first. So for anything I publish, I have a copy of the judgement sitting on my hard drive.
On May 25, I posted the case of Li Hao, an internet user in Fushun, Liaoning Province, who received a prison sentence for criticizing the CCP on Twitter. The judgement was taken offline shortly afterwards;
On July 4, I posted the case of Jin Shoukui, a cab driver in Tianjin who received a prison sentence for criticizing the CCP on NetEase News. The judgement was taken offline shortly afterwards;
On July 9, I posted the case of Wu Yong, an internet user in Wuhan who received a prison sentence for criticizing the CCP on QQ and WeChat groups. The judgement was taken offline shortly afterwards;
On July 13, I posted the case of Wang Hongquan, Tang Yunli, and Li Hede. The trio received prison sentences for starting a media outlet in Hong Kong to report negative news. The judgement was taken offline shortly afterwards;
On July 31, I posted the case of an internet user in Dongzhi County, Anhui Province, who was detained for using the term “Gongfei” [共匪, Communist bandits]. He subsequently argued in court that he was actually referring to the American “Gonghedang” [共和党, the Republican Party]. The judgement was taken offline shortly afterwards;
On August 16, I posted the case of Fu Lishu, a citizen of Wuhan who received a prison sentence for posting “Daddy Xi visits Wuhan.” The judgement was taken offline shortly afterwards;
On August 18, I posted the case of Huang Shihai, an internet user in Guangdong Province who received a prison sentence for posting a photoshopped image of Xi. The judgement was taken offline shortly afterwards;
On September 1, China Judgements Online announced new requirements for cellphone registration. But that didn’t stop me. I registered with a fake number and continued to use the site. They continued to delete entries. Whenever something I posted garnered attention and drove up visits to the original post, the website would delete the judgement. But because I’d always downloaded the judgements before publishing them, it was no big deal.
On October 30, I posted the case of Chen Yingjun and other members of a QQ group who received prison sentences for reposting information from Guo Wengui. The judgement was taken offline shortly afterwards;
On February 22, 2021, I posted the case and sentencing of Zhang Wenfang (“Marilyn Monroe”). The judgement was taken offline shortly afterwards;
On April 1, I posted the case and sentencing of Chen Shaotian (Brother Tian). The judgement was taken offline shortly afterwards;
On May 4, I posted the case of Cai Zucheng, a lawyer in Zhejiang Province who was detained for calling on the CCP to disband in a Weibo post that was almost a year old. I looked it up before publishing the case and took a screenshot as evidence; a day after my post went up, not only was the judgement taken offline, all of Cai’s Weibo posts had been deleted.
There are many similar cases. I have trouble naming them all. And I can’t look them up anymore (because they have been deleted).
Finally, in mid-May, China Judgements Online deleted all cases containing certain keywords, such as “Twitter,” “Weibo,” “false information,” “national leaders,” and other terms combined with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” I search these keywords almost every day.
They didn’t specifically target sensitive judgements, because many non-sensitive judgements were also taken offline. So it was actually the keywords they targeted.
However, their job was not complete. Many administrative cases slipped through the cracks. I don’t search for administrative cases very frequently, so they ignored some of those judgments. Since then, I’ve been focusing on administrative cases.
In mid-June, sensitive administrative cases were also taken offline. Any administrative case that involves bringing suit against the Public Security Bureau and includes the keyword “speech” has been taken offline.
In addition to China Judgements Online, WeChat has done similar things to public accounts on their platform. Previously, the cyberspace policing units of Public Security bureaus all over China used their WeChat public accounts to post cases involving freedom of speech. They referred to these cases as “picking quarrels and provoking trouble on the internet.” But sometime between March and May 2020, these units stopped publishing these types of cases, and the task fell to the PSBs. So among all the cases you see now that involve freedom of speech, the cyberspace policing units are generally not responsible for publicizing them anymore.
Note: “shortly afterwards” means within three days. [Chinese]
@SpeechFreedomCN’s archive of verdicts is available on MEGA, and a summary of verdicts may be viewed on this Google spreadsheet.
Translation by Yakexi.