This week, the top provincial judge in Hainan province, China, bowed to Chen Man, who was wrongfully convicted on a murder charge in 1994. The judge apologized for the court’s mistakes – ones that cost Chen Man two decades in prison. The previous day, Xinhua, one of China’s state broadcasters, announced that 27 officials in Inner Mongolia had been “penalized” over their role in another wrongful conviction. This one had had a much grimmer and irreversible outcome: 18-year-old Huujilt had been sentenced to death – a verdict that was carried out in 1996.

Workers fix the national emblem outside the provincial Supreme People's Court in Haikou, southern China's Hainan province, August 7, 2006. 

© 2006 Reuters

But dig below the surface and it’s not hard to see why the reversals of both cases are somewhat cold comfort to the individuals and families in question. They also add little to the Chinese government’s much-vaunted claims to be a country governed by the rule of law.

Huujilt's parents had campaigned for two decades for a posthumous exoneration of their son, who they allege was tortured into confessing to murder. Yet only when another man confessed to the crime in 2014 were they finally vindicated. But the “penalties” against the court and police officials responsible are painfully light: according to Xinhua, only one senior local police officer may face criminal charges; the other 26 have simply received internal “admonitions” and “demerits.” No one has so far been removed from office.

Chen Man was also ill-treated at the time he was taken into detention, and his family immediately challenged that treatment and the initial phases of his prosecution. Chen has asked the authorities to hold the officials involved in his wrongful conviction to account, but judging from past practice, that prospect is dim.

Under Chinese law, the procuratorate, or state prosecution, should investigate alleged use of torture against suspects, and courts should convict and sentence those found guilty. But in practice, officers are rarely investigated or held accountable for such crimes, even in the most egregious cases

It is a step forward that the Chinese government has overturned a number of wrongful convictions in recent years. But until those who torture and otherwise mistreat suspects are held accountable and face serious penalties under the law – not merely slaps on the wrist – overturning these verdicts will have little impact beyond these specific cases. They certainly won’t restore the Chinese public’s confidence in the judicial system.