Ethnic Bias in the Chinese Local Courts?

Anyone who follows China closely knows that the treatment of ethnic minority groups in the country is a contentious matter. The majority ethnic group, Han Chinese, represents about 92% of the population, while the other 8% is comprised of 55 recognized ethnic minority groups. Perhaps the most infamous group is the Uyghur Muslim minority group in Xinjiang province in western China; current news describes the human rights abuses in the region. But is there systematic bias against minority groups in the Chinese judicial system? Do people react differently when a minority commits a crime?

Yue Hou, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania and former Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for Study of Contemporary China, seeks to debunk these questions. She scrapes drug-related case outcomes from China Judgements Online, a database of court decisions for all levels of the Chinese judicial system maintained by the Supreme People’s Court. In China the laws on drug-related crimes are quite draconian: having 50 grams of drugs like heroin or methamphetamines can warrant the death penalty or compulsory rehabilitation. And yet, there is still a rising drug problem in the country. 36.6% of all drug-related crimes in China are actually concentrated in four provinces in the southwest – Yunnan, Sichuan, Guangxi, and Guangdong – amassing over 120,000 cases.

To analyze these cases, Hou first showed that possessing a greater quantity of drugs warrants a heavier imprisonment sentence. Separating by ethnic identity, it appears that minorities receive a slightly higher sentence given the same quantity of drugs than Han Chinese people. However, when stratifying the data by the four provinces of interest, it seems that drug-related sentences were biased against minorities in both Yunnan and Guangxi, no biases appeared in Guangdong, but outcomes were biased in favor of minorities in Sichuan. China does in fact have a law to show leniency against ethnic minorities in court, which may be more heavily enforced in Sichuan. So what else can explain this bias or lack thereof? Hou also tried to infer the co-ethnicity permutations of the defendant and the judge, examined whether the defendant was a repeat offender, pleaded not guilty, or if he or she had a “good attitude” in court. Further research hopes to more clearly pinpoint this relationship.

Hou’s talk today featured forthcoming research she is conducting with Rory Truex, Assistant Professor of Politics at Princeton University. You can check out more of her research here.

Blog Author