18th Party Congress

Paper praising China's legal reforms 'is whitewash'

China's first white paper on legal progress claims system is improving but critics say it just aims to bolster exiting party chiefs

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 October, 2012, 4:30am

China released its first white paper on legal reform yesterday, touting accomplishments in improving the legal framework during the past five years, ahead of the key Communist Party congress next month.

But some legal experts said the accomplishments did not serve as convincing proof that the legal system was on the right track.

They said the paper merely made it appear that leaders had done a good job, before some of them stepped down in the leadership reshuffle.

"The paper does not lay out a concrete path directing the future of legal reform of China. It is an attempt to praise the current leaders," said Professor He Weifang, who teaches law at Peking University.

He added that, as the legal system still operated under the party central committee's Political and Legislative Affairs Committee, it lacked the apparatus to implement reforms.

Zhou Yongkang, who presides over the committee and is a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, was quoted by Xinhua as saying in August that the country's judicial system "must give priority to the party's cause, people's interests and the constitution and laws".

Officials have been scrambling in recent months to show that they are determined to establish a fair legal system.

The push follows the downfall of former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai, who had championed the city's controversial crackdown on mafia-related crimes in recent years but is now accused of corruption.

The white paper released by the State Council yesterday said legal reform had been strengthened since 2008, with improved transparency of the legal system.

Amendments to the Criminal Procedure Law that were passed by the National People's Congress in March had safeguarded human rights and lawyers' rights to defend for their clients, the paper said.

But the amendments triggered controversy by permitting surveillance at a location other than the detainee's usual residence if he or she does not have a fixed home, or if the case is said to concern state security or terrorism.

Other accomplishments listed in the paper include changes to compensation offered to people affected by errors made in law enforcement, as well as a decline in the use of the death penalty, though the paper did not disclose actual figures.

The paper also claimed courts had heard more witness testimonies, but the expedited hearings for Bo's former right-hand man, Wang Lijun, and Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, have raised concerns that their trials did not follow due process.

"In addition, many lawyers are barred from taking sensitive cases. They have to report to judicial authorities before taking such cases," said Beijing-based lawyer Li Fangping.

Liu Xiaoyuan, another Beijing-based lawyer, said China had passed several new laws over the years, "but many were not properly implemented".

Professor Jiao Hongchang, who teaches law at the China University of Political Science and Law, said authorities should do more to ensure the impartiality of the courts.

But Jiang Wei, the head of a government committee on judicial reform, said during a press conference on the white paper that there would be "adverse consequences" if China blindly followed the legal systems in use by other countries.