The role of an independent judiciary should be simple enough. It brings criminals to justice; gives redress to the aggrieved; and keeps the administration on its toes. However, the Chinese judicial system works in a rather different manner. Heavy control by the state and the Communist Party means judges are nothing more than legal cadres who often rule according to instructions from the top. The administration of justice is based on politics and ideologies rather than statues and professionalism.
The latest reform by the top court is therefore welcome news. Covering some 45 initiatives in eight areas, the overhaul is one of the most ambitious in decades. The highlights include ending interference by local governments to give judges more authority in rulings; setting up provincial-level boards to oversee judges' appointment and promotion; and forming a separate committee to monitor judicial conduct. To address the problem of judicial errors, the role of lawyers in litigation will be enhanced. This includes protecting their right to cross-examine a witness.
That it has taken so long for China to come up with the initiatives is regrettable. The recognition of the need to give judges "greater independence" speaks volumes for how flawed the system is. The changes spearheaded by the Supreme People's Court are the fundamentals of a judicial system. Belated as it is, the overhaul is a step in the right direction.
This is just part of a long crusade, though. The past decades have seen many court reforms but few results. The latest one is the fourth of its kind. Mapping out an agenda is easy; but putting it into action is a challenge, especially when it seeks to reverse decades-old traditions and practices involving the party and local authorities. Unless there is a genuine will to give judges a free hand to rule, it will be just another all-talk-but-no-action review.
Judicial independence is the cornerstone of the rule of law. It is in China's interest to ensure the reform will be a success.