Jump to page content


last updated Jan 21, 2014

Current Profile Status: December 2009

Table of Content

  1. Background Information

  2. Situation of Torture

  3. Documents & Resources

Key Facts


9,596,961 sq km

Total Population

1,328,630,000 (UN 2007)

Prison Rate

119 (per 100.000 of national population)1

Capital Punishment



acceded, individual complaints procedure not accepted


not signed/ratified



1 Note: due to lack of data, the rate is limited to sentenced prisoners in detention facilities under the authority of the Ministry of Justice and does not count pre-trial detainees and detainees held in administrative detention.

Background Information

With 1.3 billion inhabitants, the People's Republic of China (PRC) is home to one fifth of the world’s population. Since 1978, when Deng Xiaoping declared the open door policy following a severe socio-economic crisis, China has undergone a rapid development. This has resulted not only in an unprecedented economic growth; it has also led to China’s reintegration in international markets and in the international political system. The drastic economic reforms have not been matched by domestic political reform. Today, China is both a major economic power and also the largest country that remains under Communist rule.

China’s political system is characterized by authoritarian rule in a one party Communist state. While the Government often speaks of “democracy with Chinese characteristics”, the system lacks an effective check on executive powers because opposition forces are not tolerated and both the media as well as the judiciary are not independent from party rule. Leadership by the Communist Party of China is enshrined in the Constitution as one of the “Four Cardinal Principles“.

Under the doctrine of “one country, two systems” the two special autonomous regions Hong Kong and Macao enjoy independent responsibility for their domestic affairs, including for the judicial system. This arrangement has also been proposed by the PRC to the Republic of China (Taiwan) which, however, has refused to accept it. In addition to the status of Taiwan, Chinese rule is also contested in Tibet and in Xinjiang, two border regions predominantly inhabited by ethnic minorities whose demands for greater autonomy are not only officially rejected but reportedly also systematically repressed.

China has accepted the indivisibility of all human rights at the 1993 World Conference in Vienna, but human rights observers criticize that it falls short of fully implementing many of the rights that it rhetorically endorses, not least freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom of expression, freedom of movement, the rights to political participation and self-determination, the right to fair trial and the freedoms from torture and arbitrary arrest. The penitentiary system in China is not restricted to prisons of the Ministry of Justice, it also includes various forms of administrative detention without judicial oversight, including RTL, Re-education through Labour camps (laodong jiaoyang). Severe threats to the right to life have been identified in an excessive use of the death penalty as well as in coercive measures used in the context of the one-child policy.

Sources: BBC Country Profile; Economist Intelligence Unit

Situation of Torture and Ill-Treatment

Legal Framework

China is State Party to CAT prohibiting torture and ill-treatment. The competence of the Committee against Torture to receive individual complaints has not been recognized by China under article 22 of CAT. Further, China has declared that it does not consider itself bound by articles 20 and 30, paragraph 1, of CAT. China has signed the ICCPR in 1998 but has offered no timetable for ratification.

In 2004, the provision “The State respects and safeguards human rights” was included into China’s constitution. To ensure consistency with the new constitutional provision, the Chinese government has declared that the Criminal Law, the Criminal Procedure Law and the framework governing administrative detention were to be reviewed by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. Although reform proposals continue to be discussed, the above-mentioned laws have so far not been revised.

Chinese domestic legislation lacks an explicit definition of torture. However, several provisions in the Criminal Law prohibit elements of torture, including: extortion of a confession under torture by a judicial officer (xingxun bigong) (art. 247); extraction of testimony by the use of force by a judicial officer (baoli quzheng) (art. 247); physical abuse of inmates as well as instigation of detainee-on-detainee violence by a policeman or other officer of an institution of confinement like a prison, a detention house or a custody house (art. 248). In 2006, the Ministry of Justice issued “Six prohibitions on people’s prison police” as well as “Six prohibitions for RTL guards”; and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate released “Regulations on filing cases standard on infringing rights by dereliction of duty”, focused on preventing abuses in detention and investigating abuses. These provisions and regulations on the prohibition and criminalisation of torture continue, however, to fall short of the requirements of articles 1 and 4 CAT, particularly with respect to the absence of any reference to severe mental pain or suffering, to other purposes than to extract confessions and the lack of a catch-all phrase that would criminalize torture by all state or quasi-state actors.

Practice of Torture and Ill-Treatment

After his fact-finding mission to China in December 2005, the Special Rapporteur concluded that torture, although in decline in urban areas, remained widespread in China. He identified several factors that contribute to the continuing practice of torture in China, namely: rules of evidence that create incentives for interrogators to obtain confessions through torture, the excessive length of time that criminal suspects are held in police custody without judicial control, the absence of a legal culture based on the presumption of innocence (including the absence of an effective right to remain silent), and restricted access to defence counsel. With regard to the RTL system, the Special Rapporteur concluded not only that it constituted a serious violation of the human right to personal liberty, but he characterized it as “a form of inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, if not mental torture”.

In 2008, the CAT Committee concluded that China had taken a number of positive legislative and regulatory steps in previous years. However, it found that allegations continued to be raised about routine and widespread use of torture and ill-treatment of suspects in police custody for the purpose of extracting confessions. Obstacles to the effective prevention of torture identified by the Committee include the state secrets law, the lack of data collection and the harassment of defence lawyers, human rights defenders and petitioners.

NGO reports highlight that members from religious and minority groups as well as human rights defenders face a heightened risk of torture and ill-treatment, not only in police custody, prison and RTL camps, but also in psychiatric incarceration and in black jails outside of the legal framework. Reports of secret places of detention have been strictly rejected by the Chinese Government, most recently in February 2009 when the Human Rights Council examined China’s human rights record in the framework of its Universal Periodic Review procedure.

The states secrets system, including the resultant culture of secrecy and the sheer lack of publicly available data seriously hinder any independent attempt to assess the practice of torture and ill-treatment in China, thereby impeding definitive, empirically-based conclusions on current practice or the concrete effect of recent legislative and prevention measures.

Sources: Report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture on his Mission to China, UN Doc. E/CN.4/2006/6/Add.6 (10 March 2006); Concluding Observations of the Committee against Torture on China, UN Doc. CAT/C/CHN/CO/4 (12 December 2008) Human Rights Council, Universal Periodic Review of China 2009 (see www.ohchr.org).