China's judicial reform has a long road ahead

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 July, 2013, 1:33am

Judicial reform and rule of law on the mainland can best be described as a work in progress. Legal scholars and activists have been encouraged by the Supreme People's Court's review of death sentences, and the appointment of a qualified lawyer as the court's president. But the system can still be as recidivist as an unrehabilitated criminal. The execution of former Hunan tycoon Zeng Chengjie for illegally raising 3.4 billion yuan (HK$4.3 billion) and defrauding investors is a case in point.

Zeng was killed by firing squad earlier this month in apparent haste and secrecy without his family being informed, even though they had been fighting publicly to overturn his conviction. The family rejected the government's explanation that it did not have contact information for them, and that Zeng did not ask authorities to contact them. In any case, the process, or lack of consideration for next of kin, was outrageous and the public outcry unsurprising.

This contrasted with the more lenient punishment of former railways minister Liu Zhijun for accepting 64.6 million yuan in bribes. He received a two-year suspended death sentence, a punishment that is usually commuted to life imprisonment. It was a blow to hopes that the appointment of former Hunan party secretary Zhou Qiang , who holds a law degree, to be president of the Supreme People's Court would restore the credibility of the judiciary.

Only months earlier, when the court was under former president Wang Shengjun , who had no legal training, its work report to the National People's Congress met with strong opposition.

Many lawyers had taken heart from Zhou's comments on reforming the judicial system. But he was in charge in Hunan when Zeng was convicted and sentenced, and in charge of the court when it approved his execution last month.

Even in the best judicial systems, inconsistency of sentencing and opacity of process can shake confidence in the law. In China, consistency and transparency are essential to nurturing the respect for it essential for social stability.