Railways ministry reform under way
China's Ministry of Railways has been stripped of its powers to hear transport cases in its own courts.
In a move welcomed by critics of the ministry's power, the jurisdiction of the China Court of Railway Transportation has been transferred to local governments.
'It is a step to show the market that the Railways Ministry is starting to reform,' said Guotai Junan analyst Gary Wong.
Echoing these sentiments, Richard di Bona, who runs a transport consultancy in Hong Kong, said reform of the once all-powerful ministry would now be easier. 'With the change of leadership in China there may now be a root-and-branch overhaul of many parts of the Chinese government, including the Railways Ministry,' he said.
The first judicial transfer occurred in January, when the Railways Ministry's 'procuratorate' in Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi province, was transferred to the Shanxi provincial government.
On the mainland, a procuratorate is a judicial body that investigates and prosecutes legal cases, while supervising courts and punishments. Two months later the Railways Ministry's procuratorate in Beijing was transferred to the Beijing municipal government, and last month the law courts and procuratorates of the Railways Ministry in Jiangsu, Gansu and Qinghai provinces were also transferred to the respective provincial governments.
'The reform of the Railways Ministry's procuratorate system is an important facet of the central government's reform of the nation's judicial system, which will improve legal supervision of the rail sector,' said Wang Xiaoyong, the head of Qinghai's procuratorate.
Before the arrest of former railways minister Liu Zhijun in February 2011 for suspected corruption, the powerful Railways Ministry was like a kingdom, with its own judicial system and police. It and the People's Liberation Army were the only institutions outside the central government that ran their own law courts.
The ministry started out as a part of the military, transporting tanks and troops, a Hong Kong transport professor who declined to be named explained. 'That is why it has this unusual arrangement of having its own courts,' he said.
But the transfer of judicial power showed the central government was stripping the ministry of its privileges.
Di Bona said: 'The special status and autonomy of the Railways Ministry is likely to be weakened. This move will provide more checks and balances.' Whereas some level of corruption may persist because enforcement of the law was uneven among the courts, large-scale systemic corruption in the rail sector should be easier to detect, he added.
David Shipley, managing director of CSRE, a UK firm that markets Chinese trains in Europe, said: 'An independent judiciary must be the aim of any civilisation, so the transfer of power can only be a good thing.'