Interview with Renwen Liu, Director of the CASS Criminal Law Department

Mr. Liu in the office of the Center Coordinator, Iina Tornberg.

Prof. Dr. Renwen Liu, Director of the Criminal Law Department of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), is a specialist in Chinese criminal law. Starting his career at the CASS Law Institute as early as 1993, he has extensive experience in the field both in China and abroad. Mr. Liu has been a research fellow at top-ranked universities such as Oxford, Yale, Harvard, and Columbia University in New York, and has visited a number of universities across Western Europe as well as in Russia and in Asia. His post as the Director of the Criminal Law Department has a wide array of responsibilities in Beijing, which currently binds him to the city for most of the time. The Finnish China Law Center had the great pleasure to host Mr. Liu during the Chinese New Year, a big Chinese holiday celebration – a time when Beijing is bustling with festive social activities. Even though engaged in research and seminars during the holiday, Mr. Liu finds the stay in Finland “nice and relaxing.”

As Professor of criminal law and Director of the Criminal Law Department of CASS, Mr. Liu is involved in an array of different fields. The CASS professors work closely with the government, offering consultancy, advice and expertise in the field of law, which they gain from research as well as cooperation with other sectors of the society. For instance, Mr. Liu’s recent cooperation with the Chinese Securities Regulatory Commission gets him on top of the newest developments in financial criminal activity. He has also assumed the responsibility for researching major judicial topics for the Supreme Court, such as that of cybercrime and the difficulties in applying justice in cyberspace.

The current challenges faced by the Chinese legal society have an international dimension and are faced by countries worldwide. Even though the Chinese legal system is different from that of European states, China’s approach is to be open-minded and learn from others. “It is very important that we learn from each other and from the international community, especially in new areas such as terrorism and cybercrime. China learns from other countries and cares about the reactions of the international community.”

In the light of cross-border challenges, Mr. Liu emphasizes the importance of comparative research in the drafting of new Chinese laws. For example, Mr. Liu was one of the advisors in drafting a new Chinese anti-terrorist law.  For background and guidance, information was collected from other countries such as Germany, France, Russia and the United States to see how they were dealing with similar issues. “Each country usually focuses on its domestic system of criminal justice. They have their relatively independent criminal law, criminal court and legal culture. We should share mutual respect for each other’s systems and approach them with understanding. But in areas such as counterterrorism, we need to strengthen cooperation in international criminal justice and its application in order for it to become more effective.”

China is also challenged by international pressure to abide by certain western standards, for instance in defining a suitable punishment for criminals, and its implementation of the death penalty. On the one hand, criminal activity has to be punished. “But the other side of the coin is that we also need to protect human rights,” Mr. Liu says. China often faces criticism from the international for the treatment of criminal suspects, defendants and prisoners. However, fundamental differences between China and Western societies should not to be neglected. China is still a developing country. “Thirty years ago, the Chinese society was still very poor. Even today many peasants in the countryside are poor,” Mr. Liu reminds. The pace of economic reforms in China has been very rapid, and as a result of government policies, millions of people have been lifted out of poverty. “China’s economic development is not only a contribution to the international community, but has also helped to restore wealth and wellbeing to many of the Chinese poor areas. This is the most important contribution to the human rights development. I really think that our human rights situation is getting increasingly better.” Mr. Liu also notes that this development has been possible due to the relative stability of the country. “There is no war, no massive movements, no fighting.”

Mr. Liu checking out Iina Tornberg’s books.

The newfound wealth and the still-existing poverty in China are not the only differences between China and Western Europe. Also the vast size of the Chinese population – 1.3 billion people – and the differing cultural traditions sometimes pose an impediment for reaching mutual understanding. “In Chinese criminal law, death penalty is perceived as a normal punishment for serious crimes. This is accepted by our culture – our people and our government. But the international trend is for the abolition of the death penalty.” Mr. Liu points out that the trend of abolishing the death penalty has, however, been noticed in China: the number of death penalties has decreased by half compared with the number ten years ago. Still, Western critics and human rights advocates claim that it should be abolished all together. “Execution as a payment for taking away the life of another human being is deeply rooted in the Chinese culture. Therefore, even though for non-violent crimes we can abolish the death penalty, for the crime of murder, the death penalty is still relevant. We shouldn’t try to run before learning how to walk; we need to progress gradually. Of course, even for the crime of murder we are limiting the scope of death penalty implementation,” says Mr. Liu.

The different perceptions of the domestic and international audiences are highlighted by the example of the death penalty. “For Chinese, these numbers are great progress. But for the international community the numbers are still unacceptable. From the domestic standpoint, there has been big improvement in the condition of human rights. But from the international standpoint, there is still distance to the ideal situation.” As we speak of human rights, Mr. Liu admits that China is not perfect – but then again, each country has their own problems. As long as the Chinese society keeps steady in its course towards improving the quality of people’s wellbeing, Mr. Liu sees the situation in a positive light.

Coming back to the role of comparative research, Mr. Liu believes there are great benefits in engaging with the international community. “In the past years, we’ve learned a lot from the UN and the international society. We are thankful for that. They give us good references when we make our laws.” It is clear that in comparative research, China is looking to other big powers such as the US, Germany and France. But what about a small country like Finland? Mr. Liu sees Finland as a part of a greater whole: the Nordics. The Nordics as a region has become a major point of interest to the Chinese. “Most Chinese people think that the Nordic countries are good. In China, we also say that we are a socialist country. And we say that the Nordic countries are the newest socialist countries. They don’t have such a big gap between the rich and the poor. But for China this is a big social problem. We have highly advanced cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, but the countryside and western areas are poor. So people say that we should learn from the social welfare system of the Nordic countries.”

Mr. Liu appreciates the dedication of Finland towards comparative study of law between Finland, as well as the Nordics, and China. Certainly there are big challenges in adapting desired Nordic elements into the Chinese society. Yet, through continued cooperation and comparative research which identifies key similarities and differences between the approaches of our respective countries, we can foster mutual understanding, create a good platform for communication and cultural exchange, and together develop better solutions for the future.