Wednesday, June 25, 2014
There has been quite a bit of attention in the Chinese press recently to proposed and perhaps in-process reforms to the Chinese judicial system. These reforms were authorized in broad strokes by the 3rd Plenum of the 18th Central Committee last fall, and at least some are now on the road to implementation. An important reform is that of partially centralizing (i.e., up to the provincial level) the power of appointments and funding for local courts (see para. 32 of the Third Plenum Decision).
Recently, the Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reform, a Party body headed by Xi Jinping, issued three documents relevant to judicial reform: (1) Opinion on Deepening Reform in the Judicial System and Social System and Plan for Division of Labor in Implementation (关于深化司法体制和社会体制改革的意见及贯彻实施分工方案); Framework Opinion on Several Issues Relating to Experimental Points in Judicial Reform (关于司法体制改革试点若干问题的框架意见); and (3) Work Plan for the Shanghai Experimental Point in Judicial Reform (上海市司法改革试点工作方案). Unfortunately, none of these documents have been made public, but their content has been sketched in the official press. Here are two articles from the Chinese press [first | second] and very helpful English-language summary courtesy of Chinese Law Translate.
These documents (at least as explicated by a government spokesman) contain a number of worthy and important reforms. Financing of all local courts is to be handled at the provincial level, as are appointments. Apparently this reform is already in process in Shanghai. (Shanghai has the administrative status of a province.) What this means is that district (区) governments and People's Congresses will no longer have power over finances and personnel respectively in Basic-Level People's Courts in their district.
This is all very well, but what seems to have been overlooked in the zeal to reform the court system is the fact that you can't do it just by making some decisions within the Party. The system whereby local authorities (i.e., Party, government, and People's Congress) control courts at the same level (at least as to personnel appointments) is enshrined both in the Court Organization Law (Art. 34) and the Constitution (Art. 101). To be sure, as reported it is not crystal clear that the reforms formally take the power of appointment away from local authorities. But it is crystal clear that local authorities will not be making the decisions. The decision as to who will be a judge in a local court will be made at the provincial level, and then "the local People's Congresses will appoint or dismiss in accordance with legal procedures" (人大依照法律程序任免).
In other words, a project designed to improve the legal system is treating legal rules as at best meaningless formalities and at worst non-existent. It seems that the problem of weak legal institutions is being dealt with the same way Simon Leys (quoting Alexandre Vialatte) describes the fate of cannibals in a certain republic: "There are no more cannibals in that country since the local authorities ate the last ones."