China courts getting more autonomy

What changes there are have been significant, says judge heading the quest

BEIJING • This past year has been a time of ups and downs for judge Jiang Huiling and his 20-year quest for legal reform in China.

Judge Jiang heads a government research institute that is spearheading an ambitious remake of China's legal system.

With pride, he points to potentially significant changes unveiled over the past year that could lead to a fairer legal system, instead of the politicised structure that upholds the law in China today.

But Mr Jiang, 52, also knows that many people see the past year as a period of retreat, rather than advance, in China's effort to establish the rule of law.

In December, for example, one of China's most prominent human rights lawyers was tried for blog posts criticising government policy, while another well-known lawyer has been held incommunicado since August for trying to defend churches whose crosses are being removed from their steeples.

"You can mention one case to defeat me," Mr Jiang said in an interview over tea near his offices at the China Institute of Applied Jurisprudence, an arm of the Supreme People's Court of China. "But I could give you 10 examples to show our determination to move forward."

Even sceptics say the changes are significant. Their centrepiece aims to make courts independent of local government.

Lower-level courts are now overseen by the county government, whose party boss runs the courts as a wing of the government, like the police force or sanitation services. Local party secretaries appoint judges and often vet politically important decisions. This structure makes it hard for ordinary Chinese to challenge abuses of power.

"People felt the courts are just part of the government," said Professor He Haibo, a legal scholar at Tsinghua University.

The reforms would put all courts under provincial administration. Although this still means they are under government control, the effect could be significant at the local level.

Other measures are being tried as well. The government has set up two pilot projects to establish circuit courts, which allow judges from one province to hear cases from others, further reducing the risk of local influence.

Dockets are also being made public for the first time, and 50 courts have been allowed to experiment with an "assessor" system that is similar to a jury.

Like other reforms in China, the emphasis is on making the current system more efficient, rather than allowing a truly independent institution. This contrasts with the early 2000s, a period of optimism about legal reform that gave rise to people like the blind self-taught lawyer Chen Guangcheng, or the "Rights' Defenders" movement.

Most of those people have since been silenced or arrested.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 04, 2016, with the headline 'China courts getting more autonomy'. Print Edition | Subscribe