How Chinese courts respond to COVID-19: Consistency and regionalism in criminal sentencing
Between March and April 2020, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) of China published a series of ‘guiding cases’ to deter the public and mentor the lower courts on how to handle pandemic-related offences. This study explores whether local courts in China followed the precedents set by the SPC. It analysed 2,018 criminal judgements passed by local courts in East China (Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangdong), Central China (Henan and Hubei), and West China (Yunnan) during the pandemic. Findings suggest that courts in Beijing fell on the punitive end. They were also more susceptible to political pressure. More than a third of the sampled cases in Beijing were about lockdown violations. In contrast, courts in Shanghai and Guangdong focused more on economic cases such as selling counterfeit medical products and PPE-related frauds. They also gave lesser sentences to defendants who violated lockdown rules. In Hubei where the pandemic hit the hardest, community sentences were most frequently used, potentially because COVID-19 reduced the capacity of prisons. The empathy of judges could also be a contributing factor. In Yunnan, there were conflicts between lockdown rules and the customs of ethnic minority groups. Offences arose from such conflicts were not treated differently by sentencers.