The Western devil is in the details of the plenum plan

China's leaders are keen to establish circuit courts and a federal bureau of investigation along lines similar to the US

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 November, 2013, 4:45am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 November, 2013, 4:45am

As the mainland leadership fleshes out the landmark blueprint adopted at the plenum of the Communist Party's 18th Central Committee and draw up details of how to implement the recommendations, it has made clear that China will never take the "evil route" of the Western-style democracy.

Indeed, even though the blueprint is supposed to take the economy to a new level of development and integration with the global community, leaders constantly warn that hostile foreign forces - namely the United States - will subvert communist rule by advocating the superiority of Western-style governance.

Ironically, Chinese leaders remain unabashed in learning from, or even copying, the functions of America's political system and judiciary as they try to overcome resistance from powerful vested interests and local authorities to centralise power and improve governance.

Meanwhile, the international community is paying close attention to the new national security committee, reportedly styled on the US National Security Council. The new body will bring together the police, military, intelligence and diplomatic services to deal with increasingly complex challenges at home and abroad.

But the security commission is not the only idea that the mainland is borrowing from the Americans.

As it attempts to improve the corruption-riddled judicial system and reduce rampant interference in courts by local officials, the central government is accelerating efforts to set up Chinese versions of US federal circuit courts and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

It seems that the leadership will move faster on setting up the circuit courts than the investigative bureau, which is still in the planning stage.

As usual, the plenum document was very vague in this regard, merely stating that senior leaders had called for a judicial jurisdiction system that was "relatively separate" from the administrative division.

But what is going to transpire will mark a significant development in the country's judicial system as the establishment of circuit courts and circuit prosecutor's offices can cover multiple administrative jurisdictions to reduce the influence from local authorities and promote the independence of the judiciary system.

Currently, the courts and prosecutors - called procuratorates on the mainland - at the provincial level and below have dual, parallel reporting systems to the higher level courts on judicial matters and to local authorities on administrative matters.

As the local authorities exercise greater influence over the appointment of judges and prosecutors and pay their salaries, they often intervene in how cases are handled and influence verdicts.

Rampant official corruption and entrenched local protectionism mean that courts are often criticised for giving biased verdicts and favouring defendants or plaintiffs who have local connections, particularly in cases involving more than one jurisdiction. This has greatly compromised judicial independence, leading often to biased or even incorrect convictions.

It is interesting to note that China already has in place a primitive version of circuit courts at the county level or below. It is popular in remote areas where judges travel to far-flung villages to settle minor civil or criminal cases.

In future, the authorities are expected to establish circuit courts and prosecutors in key cities that will cover multiple jurisdictions and report directly to the Supreme People's Court in Beijing.

Along similar thinking, the authorities are also exploring the possibility of setting up a national bureau of investigation to tackle major organised crimes, terrorism, and increasingly violent attacks in ethnic minority areas.

Just like the court system, police also have dual reporting functions with the local officials exercising greater influence over the appointments of the police chiefs. While the Ministry of Public Security has units to investigate organised and violent crime, it lacks manpower and resources so must rely on provincial police departments for many matters.

The new agency, if approved, could in the future set up its own regional offices, independent of the provincial local police forces.