China’s Communist leaders promised legal reforms on Thursday that could give judges more independence from interference by local officials but will leave the party essentially above the law, the Washington Post’s Simon Denyer reports:
After a four-day closed-door session, the party’s elite Central Committee pledged to promote “the socialist rule of law with Chinese characteristics.” Far from a Western notion of the separation of powers, the communique made it clear the Communist Party remained the ultimate authority in the country, and talk of reform seemed largely aimed at improving local governance and calming rising social unrest.
“This is something that has to be done if the party wants to maintain legitimacy, because legitimacy is not just made by abstract concepts and buzzwords,” said Flora Sapio, an assistant professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who studies China’s legal system. “You have to deliver something to the people,” she told the New York Times:
But she and other legal experts noted that Mr. Xi had no interest in creating a judiciary that could rule against the party’s policies and interests, particularly in cases that are politically delicate or that could lead to social unrest.
Hence the government’s talk of “rule of law” is “like a rooster dreaming that he can lay eggs,” Teng Biao (left), a prominent rights lawyer, wrote this week in Oriental Daily News, a Hong Kong website.
“The basic political system is incompatible with rule of law,” he said in an interview from Cambridge, Mass., where he is a visiting scholar at Harvard University. “They mainly want to use the law to control society and control the public.”
In a country where the notion that the ruling elite should be restrained by law has never held sway, few expect the party to allow a truly independent judiciary, the Wall Street Journal reports:
“They need a strong judiciary to capture, or to resolve, all the disputes on the streets,” said Fu Hualing, a professor of law at Hong Kong University. “Basically, you’re creating a sphere of autonomy over which you don’t have total control in the end. That’s the sacrifice.”
In past plenums, the party has often followed up initial statements with more details in a broader policy paper a week or so later. For now, Thursday’s communiqué offered few clues as to the party’s seriousness about moving beyond paying lip service to rule of law.
“I was looking for a bit more,” Mr. Fu said. “It’s pretty dry—there’s not much you can squeeze out of it.”
“What we really need is to incorporate the idea of ‘governing the country by law’ into every aspect of our governance and we need to modernise the entire method of governing,” said Lin Zhe, a professor specialising in anti-corruption at China’s top training academy for senior party officials. “We no longer want rule by individuals and their whims, which we have relied on heavily in the past,” Lin told the FT:
How this will be applied in practice is unclear, since there was no indication from the meeting that the party intended to reduce its decision-making power in cases officials decide are “political” or “sensitive”.
Mr Xi and other leaders have previously derided and ruled out “constitutionalism” for China but the communiqué yesterday said China “should be ruled in line with the constitution”.
Analysts tell Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post that the “lack of action on Zhou Yongkang suggests party divisions”. According to Hong Kong-based political commentator Johnny Lau Yui-siu, reforms by President Xi Jinping are facing “strong resistance” within the party.
A commentary in the Haiwai Net also observes that no mention was made at the meeting of top military official Xu Caihou who has been accused of accepting bribes.
“Mr Zhou and Mr Xu are at the centre of the corruption theme, yet there wasn’t much discussion about them during the meeting,” says the article. Nevertheless, it adds that the anti-corruption effort of the current leadership has won much praise and dismisses allegations of “power struggles” within the party.