Dec 29, 2020 05:52 PM

Year in Review: Drive to Overturn Wrongful Convictions Gains Momentum

This year, multiple provincial high courts overturned wrongful imprisonments. Some acquittals came just days after initial verdicts and other victims only saw their names cleared after being behind bars for decades.

On Oct. 24, 1993, Zhang Yuhuan was arrested and charged with the murder of two boys in his village, and was later sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve. Zhang was acquitted by the Jiangxi High People’s Court in August after 9,778 days in prison — the longest wrongful imprisonment in modern Chinese history.

In October, the court decided to pay Zhang a record-breaking 4.96 million yuan ($763,000) in compensation for his 27 years of incarceration.

Zhang’s case is part of broader efforts to correct unjust convictions in recent years. In 2020, Caixin covered a series of cases in which people were trying, sometimes successfully, to get their names cleared. Victims of false convictions include workers, farmers, environmentalists and officials. A review of their stories at the end of the year reminds us how precious justice is.

Wu Chunhong (link in Chinese) from Central China’s Henan province was arrested for a fatal poisoning in 2004. After a series of trials, Wu was sentenced to life in prison.

In April, after 5,612 days in prison, Wu was declared innocent by the Henan High People’s Court after a retrial. He demanded compensation of 18.72 million yuan but ended up with 2.62 million yuan. Wu has filed a motion with the country’s top court for his compensation to be reconsidered.

Tianjin resident Yang Songfa was arrested in March 2001 for killing his girlfriend. Yang was sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve in October 2003 and has been in prison since. The Supreme People’s Court ordered a retrial of Yang’s case in late 2018 due to “unclear facts and contradictory evidence.” In September, the Tianjin High People’s Court retried Yang’s case and prosecutors suggested an acquittal. The verdict is yet to be announced.

In other wrongful convictions, the defendants were accused of various crimes, ranging from “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” corruption and bribery, to abuse of power.

In June 2019, Li Sixia, an engineer in Northwest China’s Shaanxi province, was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for picking quarrels and provoking trouble. Since 2008, Li had repeatedly reported the pollution and road damage caused by two stone-processing factories in her hometown and went on to fight for compensation on behalf of her community. Following her conviction, Li filed an appeal and a court ordered a retrial. In August, local prosecutors withdrew the case against her.

Nie Xiaohong (link in Chinese), an official in Jiangxi, was convicted of corruption and bribery in 2006. Nie received a reduced seven-year prison sentence in his first retrial in August 2009. Nie claimed that he had been framed by Song Chenguang, a former vice president of Jiangxi’s political consultative conference, and Wang Lin, a self-proclaimed master of the “qigong” spiritual and martial arts practice. In June, the Jiangxi High People’s Court began a second retrial of Nie’s case, which will be his last hope of having his name cleared.

Liu Zhifa (link in Chinese) was sentenced to three years in prison in 1978 after being accused of stealing cash from an office. A retrial of his case was ordered as early as in 1979 but never took place. In March, after local prosecutors formally dropped the charges against the 71-year-old, he was finally exonerated and soon applied for state compensation.

Yao Minjie and Zhang Lixin, two small-town officials from northern China’s Inner Mongolia autonomous region, were convicted of abusing official power in February. The two embarked on a sunflower-planting project, but it failed to pay off and posted huge losses. Soon after their conviction, a retrial was ordered and, nine days later, prosecutors dropped the case against the pair.

Contact editor Joshua Dummer (

This article is part of a 10-part series. You can find links to the others below.

Year in Review: China’s Economy Gets Back on Track, but Faces Long Road Ahead

Year in Review: Finance in China in a Word — Deleveraging

Year in Review: China’s Careful Exit From Pandemic’s Fiscal and Monetary Policy

Year in Review: China’s Financial Market in 2020 — More Opening, More Regulation

Year in Review: China’s Diplomacy in 2020 ― ‘Wolf Warriors’ in Action

Year in Review: 2020 Exposes Gray Rhino Risks in China’s Financial Sector

Year in Review: Once Darlings, China Tech Giants Face Growing Scrutiny at Home and Abroad

Year in Review: The Year Covid-19 Changed Everything

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