Concern over mainland rule of law
The mainland has improved large sections of its criminal justice system but its rule of law is being eroded when it comes to cases deemed sensitive by the authorities.
This was the view of legal experts at a two-day conference on the mainland's justice system held in Hong Kong over the weekend.
'This is a very serious time to consider criminal justice in China,' said veteran Chinese law professor Jerome Cohen, of the New York University School of Law.
He was making the comments against the backdrop of an unprecedented crackdown on the mainland.
Since February, at least 12 rights lawyers have been detained or have disappeared - that is, put out of contact with friends and family for up to two months in some cases.
Cohen noted the increased use of 'extra-legal' measures such as post-release house arrests and forced disappearances as well as claims of exceptions to criminal procedures.
'There are really two criminal processes in China. There's the formal one and there's the campaign system where all laws are forgotten,' he said, referring to times such as the Chongqing crackdown against triads. 'And we don't know enough about the latter.'
More than 50 criminal law experts and lawyers took part in the conference, hosted by the Centre for Rights and Justice at Chinese University.
It was held to discuss challenges facing the mainland criminal justice system and the possible areas for reform.
But concern was expressed about the recent disappearances of lawyers.
'This is a small group but very important group, since they take on the challenging cases,' said Eva Pils, co-director of the centre.
She argued that increasingly we see 'a dual state' on the mainland, one with laws and one which goes unchecked by legal guarantees.
Cohen said a worrying trend was that usually outspoken people who have returned from their 'disappearance' have so far remained silent.
'This is the utmost horror - using legal and illegal measures to permanently silence a person,' Cohen said. 'We don't know what deals have been struck.' But law experts at the conference also recognised improvements in the mainland's criminal justice system.
Some examples are the introduction of audio-video recordings at procuratorate-level interrogations to prevent use of threats and torture in obtaining confessions, the new exclusion rules on illegally-obtained evidence, and pilot schemes in separating sentencing from the trial hearing.
Professor Chen Guangzhong, of the China University of Political Science and Law, said he was positive about forthcoming amendments to the Criminal Procedure Law.
He said: 'In the past 30 years, we've inched forward along a challenging path. We should improve more with the amendments.'