China's chief justice Xiao Yang and chief prosecutor Jia Chunwang both pledged in their annual work reports at the ongoing parliamentary session to follow a policy of "balancing severe punishment with leniency" in a deliberate move away from the "strike hard" anti-crime policy that has been in place in China for more than two decades.
"The new wording marks a tremendous shift in China's criminal justice system," said Liu Hainian, renowned law professor with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), in an interview with Xinhua.
Even though severe punishments, including the death penalty, are still part of the new approach, the shift is a major step forward in China's judicial reform for the protection of human rights, Liu said.
Xiao Yang, president of China's Supreme People's Court, told the annual session of the National People's Congress (NPC) that Chinese courts at all levels should "adhere to the policy of balancing severe punishment and leniency".
Jia Chunwang, procurator-general of the Supreme People's Procuratorate (SPP), also promised to carry out the policy in order to "promote social harmony".
China initiated the "strike hard" anti-crime campaigns in 1983, ruling that criminals should be dealt with "severely, heavily and with no delay". The policy was aimed at countering a sudden surge in criminal offenses which arose shortly after China began its reform and opening up policy.
According to statistics, China has carried out three nationwide "strike hard" campaigns and several hundred campaigns at local levels in the past 24 years. During the first national "Strike Hard" campaign in 1983 more than 1.6 million criminal cases were handled.
Professor Liu Hainian said that as social order deteriorated and serious crime soared during the 1980s, the "strike hard" campaigns did help to maintain public order and social stability in China.
But rapid police interrogations and hasty judgments by the court were also blamed for widespread torture and unjust punishments for innocent parties. Many others were given penalties harsher than they deserved in accordance with the law.
Following the exposure of several misjudged cases years ago which sparked national outcries, China's legal circles began to reflect on the criminal justice system. In one case reported in 2005, a Chinese woman Shi Xiaorong, believed to be killed in the 1980s in Hunan Province, reappeared 16 years after her alleged murderer had been executed.
"Handling all criminal offenses under the sole approach of 'strike hard' is not in the spirit of building a harmonious society, which is based on equity and justice," Professor Liu said.
In October 2006, the policy of "balancing severe punishment with leniency", was first recognized by the Chinese central authorities as a means to help build a harmonious society.
Liu said the new policy meant that, on one hand, the public security and judicial organs should continue to crackdown on crimes which endanger national security, organized crime and severe violent crimes. But, on the other hand, lighter sentences should be given to perpetrators of less violent crimes and to minors and first offenders.
In a move seen as an effort to control the issuing of the death penalty, China's Supreme People's Court took back the power of reviewing and ratifying all death penalty cases on January 1 this year, ending a 26-year practice of letting courts at lower levels decide.
Professor Liu said that in order to implement the policy of "balancing severe punishment with leniency", a concrete standard on what crime constitutes which penalty should be established.
"The Supreme Court should also select some example cases to illustrate standards," he said.
He also suggested that the top legislature should amend relevant laws to reduce the amount of crimes that are punishable by the death penalty and called for greater supervision over the judicial procedure to avoid corruption during the judgement process.
"The point of this new policy is to ensure that every crime is punished in accordance with the law," he said.