A dummy's guide to jail system in China


To those foreigners visiting or living in China, have you ever wondered how you may end up in a jail in China and what life may be like in there?

In fact, there is an increasing number of foreigners doing time in jail in China. Two Canadians, Spavor and Kovrig, were accused of espionage and spent almost three years in detention in China before being formally convicted recently. Another Chinese Canadian, Kris Wu, was recently arrested on allegedly rape charges and is now detained in a remand centre in Beijing pending further investigation.

What types of jail?

A person in breach of Chinese law may be locked up in three different places of imprisonment depending on the seriousness of the offence: a detention centre (ju liu shuo), a remand centre (kan shou shuo) or a prison (jian yu).

A detention centre is administered by the relevant local police and holds people who have committed minor offences which are not serious enough to constitute a crime under Chinese law. Such minor offences are mostly administrative or social disturbance breaches punishable by a detention term of between 3 to 15 days as determined by the local police. Drink driving and prostitution are two of the common offences for those sent to a detention centre in China. Detainees in a detention centre usually will be provided access to their family and face a less harsh environment than those in the remand centres or prisons.

A remand centre is also administered by the local police but holds suspects of crimes who are subject to criminal investigation by the police or are subject to criminal prosecution by the prosecution bureau. The maximum term of detention in a remand centre is theoretically 37 days but may be extended. In practice, it is not uncommon for a suspect to be arrested and held in a remand centre for years without being formally prosecuted or convicted. Persons detained in a remand centre will not have access to their family and outside world except through their lawyers and time in a remand centre is much harder to bear.

A prison is administered by the judicial department and holds convicted criminals. People doing time in a Chinese prison may face jail terms ranging from 3 months to life imprisonment. Life in a Chinese prison is very tough and prisoners will be required to undergo both physical (i.e. manual labour) as well as mental (i.e. courses) reforms.

How one may end up in a jail?

It is easier than what one may think to run afoul of Chinese law and face a jail term in China. Consider the following hypotheses.

Assuming you have just landed in Shanghai to meet up with friends at a local bar. After having one bottle of beer, you decided it was time to go home which is just a few blocks away. While driving home you were stopped by police and given a breath test. Turned out you were driving under the influence of alcohol (i.e. alcohol level higher than 20mg/100ml) and as a repeated offender, you will likely to be sent to a detention centre for up to 10 days.

What if instead of just one bottle of beer you had two or more? Most likely the alcohol level in your blood will reach 80mg/100ml and you may be charged with the offence of dangerous driving. The penalty will now be a prison term of between 1 to 6 months.

Now let’s assume that due to a combination of excitement and alcohol you got into a fight at the bar. Your opponent suffers, among others, a cut of 3.5cm wound to his face. Under Chinese law that wound would qualify as light injury (qin shang) and you may be charged with the offence of assault occasioning light injury and face a potential prison term of up to 3 years!

Life in a Chinese jail

Under Chinese law both foreigners and Chinese citizens are treated the same except that consulate visits and translation may be provided to foreigners upon request.

Detainees sent to a jail will be required to hand in all their belongings and have their photos taken by the jail authority. Naked body searches will be conducted to prevent any dangerous or harmful goods being brought into the jail.

After being admitted into a jail a detainee will likely be required to share a cell with dozens of other detainees. There will be no personal privacy in the cell and the detainees will have to conduct everyday routine in the presence of all other people. The ultimate challenge for a foreigner would have to be learning to use the Chinese style toilet in plain sight of everyone!

Other than the lack of personal privacy, life in a Chinese jail is otherwise simple and strict as illustrated in the sample timetable below:


Foreigners in a Chinese jail obviously should not have any expectation on the food served in the jail which will be basic and simply edible. The good news is that Chinese jail typically would allow the family of a detainee to provide financial support through pre-payment cards or equivalent mechanism so that the detainee may purchase extra foods, cigarettes and other personal items for additional comfort.

Right to legal representation

An accused person has the right to appoint legal representation in China. Apart from advising the accused on the criminal procedures and the defence, the lawyer sometimes will also be the only access the accused will have to the outside world, particularly for those in remand centres where no family visit is permitted.

The best criminal practice lawyers in China tend to be based in major cities such as Beijing which can provide a steady stream of cases. In addition, people all over China also flock to Beijing to look for criminal practice lawyers as their local lawyers are often considered to be part of the local establishment and may be less inclined to vigorously defend the rights of the accused.






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