Pedigree of top judge Zhou Qiang offers hope for legal reform
Observers are pleased the new chief of the Supreme People's Court, Zhou Qiang, has a strong background in law
Last month's appointment of law graduate Zhou Qiang as the new chief of the Supreme People's Court is stoking hopes that he may steer judicial reform on the mainland back in the right direction.
Unlike his predecessor Wang Shengjun, a party official with a police background who never studied law, Zhou, 53, was one of the country's first law students after the Cultural Revolution. He joined Southwest University of Political Science and Law in 1978 and graduated with a master's degree in civil law in 1985.
He then spent a decade in the Ministry of Justice, working mainly in policy and legislative affairs, then rose through the ranks of the Communist Youth League before being sent to Hunan and eventually becoming Communist Party secretary of the province for three years.
While few believe that one person can change a whole system, many mainland legal professionals nevertheless hold out cautious hope that Zhou's appointment could bring about positive change.
Zhou has a reputation for being pragmatic and open-minded. In Hunan, he pushed for transparency and the building of rule of law by making the judiciary more accessible to the public. And when he was at the Ministry of Justice, he worked closely with judge Xiao Yang, who was Supreme People's Court president for a decade until Wang Shengjun took over. Xiao, who once served as justice minister, is remembered for his efforts to make the judiciary more professional - for example, by requiring judges to have studied law and to sit for the same legal qualification examinations as lawyers and prosecutors.
During Wang's reign as court president, which began in 2008, many believe judicial reform stalled or went down the wrong path, with maintaining stability his main concern. He scaled back professionalisation efforts and instead trumpeted the "Three Supremes" - that the judiciary should "serve the interests of the Communist Party, the people and the constitution", in that order.
Wang also pushed the courts into doing mediation and called for judges to take proactive roles in resolving disputes, rather than adopting the more independent arbiter role that Xiao promoted.
Many hope that Zhou can refocus judicial reform on professionalisation, which is the key to creating a relatively independent judiciary.
Short of that, they still hope that Zhou's appointment reflects the new leadership's recognition of the importance of placing someone with the right qualifications in the right post. With Zhou heading the Supreme People's Court and Cao Jianming , a former judge and law professor, returning as head of the Supreme People's Procuratorate, the mainland for the first time has law professionals as heads of its court system and prosecution service.
Reformist law professor He Weifang, a contemporary of Zhou's at Southwest, said Zhou should at least be able to communicate with the judiciary on a professional level and promote better co-operation between the court and the procuratorate, which do not always hold the same views on legal reforms.
However, Zhou's record is not flawless. He was Hunan's party leader when June 4 activist Li Wangyang allegedly committed suicide in a Shaoyang hospital in June last year. The hasty handling of Li's suspicious death casts doubt on Zhou's ability to handle sensitive matters.
That brings us back to the question of how much impact an individual can have on the rule of law without bigger, structural change.
On the one hand, there are other hopeful signs, such as President Xi Jinping repeatedly highlighting the need to uphold the constitution, and the fact that Premier Li Keqiang is also a law graduate - from Peking University.
The mainland's first post-Cultural Revolution law students are now taking key positions in government. Fourteen members of Zhou's class alone reportedly hold provincial or ministerial-level leadership positions, 100 hold lower-level leadership positions and another 100 are in academia. One is Xia Yong, who has just been appointed deputy director of the State Council's Legislative Affairs Office after serving as head of the National Administration for the Protection of State Secrets.
On the other hand, there are no signs the government will relax its control over courts and lawyers, or change its focus on maintaining stability, judging from the round-up of activists during the National People's Congress and Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference in Beijing.
Ng Tze-wei is a former South China Morning Post reporter firstname.lastname@example.org