Legal litmus test
AFTER 20 months in a Chinese jail, even the slightest sign that Australian-Chinese businessman James Peng Jiandong's long ordeal is moving closer towards being resolved can only be good news for all those concerned about his fate.
In other circumstances, Supreme People's Court Vice-President Liu Jiachen's pledge that the case will be handled strictly in accordance with China's laws might not be of much significance. But, for Mr Peng, it represents a positive development. After all, it was only last week the Chinese Foreign Ministry still insisted he was being held because of 'proven facts about his criminal activities'.
Now a senior member of the Chinese judiciary has apparently accepted that there is at least some presumption he is innocent until proved guilty. That, at least, is how the Australian Government is interpreting it. Even more importance is being attached to Mr Liu's promise that, however compelling Shenzhen prosecutors believe their evidence to be, it is the courts who will decide Mr Peng's guilt or innocence. That should reassure those who fear the local authorities may be too zealous in pursuing a case which has already been three times referred back to the Shenzhen Procuratorate, by the Special Economic Zone's Intermediate People's Court, apparently for lack of evidence to convict.
But a note of caution is in order. If Mr Peng - who insists he was illegally abducted from Macau two years ago - is convicted, he could face the death penalty. And no Chinese official has yet given any indication of how much longer he will have to stay in jail awaiting a decision on his fate. With a major Australian trade fair scheduled to be held in Shanghai this September, some will suspect that both governments now have a shared interest in seeing this case settled as swiftly as possible.
But the rule of law should not be allowed to depend on such extraneous matters. As Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans said in Perth, the implications of this case go far beyond Mr Peng's fate - and may affect many in Hong Kong.
China insists Mr Peng is one of their citizens, although he holds an Australian passport. Such a stance must cause concern to many in the territory, who have also acquired foreign nationality, as an insurance against 1997. That is yet another reason for hoping that Mr Peng's case is resolved swiftly, and according to the law. And it will not be only Canberra which is watching to see that Beijing lives up to Mr Liu's pledge, that it is the courts rather than local officials who administer justice, in the case which many now see as a litmus test of China's commitment to build a fair legal system.